This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 326: Scott Teems Writer/Director of The Quarry (2020).
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #326 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 Scott Teems who just wrote and directed a film called The Quarry, starring Shea Whigham and Michael Shannon. We talk about this film as well as how he broke into the industry. He’s done a lot of TV writing as well, so we talk a little bit about that and we also talk about how he got staffed on Rectify and Narcos: Mexico, so stay tuned for that interview.
The SYS Six-Figure Screenplay Contest is now open for submissions. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. The early bird discount runs through May 31st. The idea for this contest was simple, find the best low budget scripts and present them to the industry. I’m defining low budget as less than $1,000,000, in other words, six figures or less. If you have any questions about how to figure out the budget of your screenplay, I created a short video which you can find on the contest landing page. Here’s how it’s all going to work. Every submission will get read by at least three professional readers. These are readers I have hired to read scripts in the first round.
Each reader will give each script a quick assessment, which you can actually purchase if you’d like to see these and get some quick feedback on your script. Then the scripts that stand out from the first round, will move into the second round where we will disseminate the scripts out to the industry judges and then the industry judges will grade the scripts. Again, I’ll have a look at everything and we will decide on our winners. We’re giving away thousands in cash and prizes to the winners. I’ve lined up about 40 industry pros as judges. They’re listed on the contest landing page with links to their IMDb pages. Many of the judges are people who you may be familiar with as they’re people that I’ve had on the podcast.
These are real filmmakers who are out there making movies and one of the big reasons that these folks are willing to be judges in this contest is because they’re hoping to find material that they themselves can produce. Some of the judges include guys like Daniel Zirilli from #Episode Number 125, Mark Stolaroff from #Episode 256, Jeffrey Giles from #Episode 246. These are all again working producers, directors working in the low budget space and those are just an example of some of the producers that are gonna be our industry judges. So again, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest if you wanna check out who the other judges are and perhaps enter the contest or learn more about it.
There’s some ins and outs, some of the more details are on the contest page as well. Again, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review on 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 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.com/podcast and then just look for Episode Number #326.
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, it’s 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 Scott Teems. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Scott to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Scott: Yeah, thanks for having me.
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?
Scott: Yeah, I come from Georgia. I grew up just outside of Atlanta suburbs. I was just always one of those kids, kind of a classic story, I was one of those kids who had a video camera in his hand and would convince my teachers to let me make little movies and little book reports. I had a couple of teachers along the way who really encouraged me, especially my… this teacher I had in the eighth grade named Ms. Harrison. She’d let me make a bunch of movies during her class and that kind of lit the fire and from there I just kinda went with it. I did it all through high school, off and on while playing sports and doing other things and went to school, got a film degree and then moved to New York right after college and just wanted to try to do it.
I had a lot of bad scripts, but each one seemed to be a little less bad than the one before and made a bunch of short films. That was kind of my… I studied film history and film theory in school and that was, I think, really important for my foundation. You know, I think it’s really important to have that knowledge of history so we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. And after that it was then just a process of trial by error and just writing and writing and writing and writing.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. So you’ve done some TV writing. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that transition. You did these short films. How did you transition from making short films, being a film student to actually being paid professionally to write? What was that like and what exactly did you do to get onto like let’s say Rectify? What was that process?
Scott: Yeah, well before Rectify I wrote and directed a feature and that was really the way I broke in when this movie about 10 years ago called That Evening Sun and that premiered at South by Southwest and won some awards and that got me representation and agent manager and all that. But the way that film came together was I optioned this short story myself, I was looking for a great story. I’d written some scripts, but I’ve never been a big idea guy. I like the process of figuring out what a movie is from a story. That’s why I’ve always been drawn to adaptation. And I was looking for a great story to write. I found this short story by this author named William Gay, optioned that story myself and develop the script and was finally able to put that movie together as a million-dollar independent film.
And that movie is what kinda brought me through. On that film I worked with Ray McKinnon as an actor. He also produced the movie, but he’s in the movie as well. And Ray then eventually… and Ray was a huge part like Ray’s interest in the movie, both as a producer and an actor, Ray and Walton Goggins. They had a film company together at that point and they were both Georgia guys and both guys I looked up to and I sought them out to be in this movie and to produce the movie to help kinda shepherd me through this process. So their interest is what really helped bring the money and get the movie rolling. And then five years later or four years later when Rectify happened, which Ray created, so Ray was the show runner and he created that show.
And in the second season he called me up and said, “Hey, do you wanna come work on that show?” And little did he know that I had been trying to break into TV, but I couldn’t because I didn’t have any experience, I didn’t have any TV specs or whatever. So he helped me with my film career and he helped me with my TV career. So I owe him quite a lot.
Ashley: Yeah. How did you meet Ray? What was that process like getting on his radar and actually getting him to notice you?
Scott: This is a beautiful sort of LA story. My friend Terence Barry, who was producing that movie with me and that… not my first movie, we were looking for…. we had had Ray and Walton on our radar and trying to find them but we had no way to get ahold of him. We didn’t have agents, we couldn’t… no one took our calls. And if you’re living in LA sometimes you have a bit of luck. And literally Terrance was in Poquito Mas, Mexican restaurant in Burbank and heard this voice behind him, it sounded like Ray McKinnon and turn around and there he was sitting there in the most classic way you can imagine, Terence walked over to Ray and said, “Hey man, you don’t know me but I’ve got a script.” And it’s the most hokey story ever but it worked. Then Ray said, “Sure. Send it to me.”
In a couple of months, he read the script, got back to us and said, “Hey man, let’s talk.” And that seemed because we were all from the South and he felt a familiar voice and a familiar spirit that helped a lot, you know. But then that was, it was one of those fortunate stories where you just run into somebody on the street, which happens sometimes.
Ashley: Yeah. Especially living in LA. That’s one of the big advantages just being in LA, being in that fish bowl. So let’s dig into your latest film The Quarry starring Michael Shannon. Maybe to start out, you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is this film all about?
Scott: Yeah, the core is about this mysterious drifter who rolls into this small Texas town claiming to be the new preacher, but he’s got some secrets he’s holding and he gets in this cat and mouse game with the local police chief and… while guilt and conscience begin to weigh upon it. It’s a suspense thriller, kind of a character piece sort of a Texas noir.
Ashley: Where did this idea come from? What was the genesis of this project?
Scott: It was also a book. It’s based on a novel by a South African writer named Damon Galgut, which I read about 10 years ago and… but I was struck. So even though it was a, it’s a post-apartheid story about racial injustice in that country, I was struck by the similarities to what we’re experiencing in our country and sort of racial conflict and strife plus the sort of barren Plains South African coastal landscape reminded me of Texas, and it felt like a very natural translation, especially when you have a sort of classic premise like the stranger rolls into town kind of story, which we’ve seen before. That is the universal premise, you translate it to any setting or [inaudible 00:11:04] and that was what grabbed me. And so I [inaudible 00:11:06].
Ashley: Okay. Perfect. So let’s talk about your actual writing process. And maybe to start, we can just kinda talk about the collaboration with Andrew Brotzman. What does that process look like? Do you guys sit in the same room, do you guys use Skype? How does your… do you do an outline together and then divide up scenes then come together? Maybe you can just sort of talk us through your process with Andrew on the writing of the script.
Scott: Yeah, Andrew and I have written a couple of things together and he was just an old friend of mine who just always gave me the best notes. I’d actually written several drafts of The Quarry before I brought Andrew on, but I got to a point where I realized the script needed to… I couldn’t crack whatever the next sort of level it needed to be. It needed to be deeper, richer, fuller. And Andrew had given me a lot of great notes on it already and so I asked him to come on and work with me. And how we’ve developed over the years a partnership writing, we don’t write together and we just take a draft each and sort of pass drafts back and forth. I’ll do a draft, we’ll get together, we’ll meet, we’ll talk through everything, all his notes and his ideas, we’ll get to a new place, he’ll take it and do a pass and we just pass it back and forth over time.
We’re both pretty quick writers and that is a fairly expeditious process. But we just really like to challenge each other, but then we also like to just go right. We have a pretty similar spirit and tone in how we write even though we come, you know, Andrew’s from Maine, he comes from a very different place than I do, but he can capture the same sort of spirit I’m going for often, and we have a lot of mutual interests. So we write and then get together and talk and then go back and write. That’s how we usually work.
Ashley: I got you. So then on this one, you got the book and then you sort of broke that down into an outline and then ultimately created this first draft, which then you started working with Andrew on. How long does that process take for you between reading the book, breaking it down, and then actually producing that first draft?
Scott: Yeah, I always tend to… I’ve done several adaptations and I usually tend to start writing too soon. I’m a pretty impatient guy and I wish I could say I sit there and work the whole outline out and figure it all out. But I tend to have to learn through the writing of the script. I just feel like I discover what the story is by writing the script. Now that is not a very efficient process because it means I usually write many more drafts than I would normally, but I just have, always have a difficult time sort of projecting the end or sort of figuring it out in the macro. I tend to work better than the micro and just, you know, it ends up being… That’s why I like to work with writing partners because we can sort of, because of that efficient process that Andrew and I have, for example, we can move through it rather quickly and identify problems sooner perhaps than I could on my own.
I’ve worked with a few different writers over the years and there’s this balance in the writing together. I tend to just figure it out on the page as opposed to sort of sitting back and working in the micro. And then in the mornings I take a long walk, about a five mile walk every morning and that’s when I work out most of my story problems and then come back and put them down on the page.
Ashley: I got you. So with this one you mentioned this is kind of a tried and true genre or sub-genre, the stranger rolling into town. I mean I was, as you were saying that, I was trying to think of some of the films that kind of fall into that. I think there’s sort of the Western sort of tropes. What are some of the tropes that you kinda tried to play with? Are there some specific things that you tried to subvert, some tropes you tried to subvert? What are some of these other films that you looked at to kind of build that sort of knowledge of what came before you?
Scott: Yeah, I mean when it comes to that sort of genre, that specific story like you said, definitely you have the sort of Clint Eastwood Man Without A Name sort of Westerns that first come to mind. You also have a film like Night Of The Hunter, which is sort of touchstone as well. And then when you get to the wall of sort of Texas noir and character pieces, anything that’s in Texas crime genre in the last 10 years sort of sits in the shadow of No Country For Old Men. And I’m happy in that set up, it’s one of the greatest films in the last 20 years, and until I really look to that as well as a movie like… which also has elements of both those pieces, both those ideas. In terms of playing with the genre or subverting it, one thing I liked about the book was that in most of those stories it begins where the stranger rolls into town and then you have to figure out who is he and what is he done in his past.
Because what appealed to me about The Quarry and the novel is that you see what he’s done right from the beginning, and the sin he’s running from happens in the story as you’re reading an experience it. So there’s no question of what has he done or who he is. You know who he is. So that changes the emphasis of what the story’s about. It’s no longer a mystery about who is this guy. It’s more of a mystery or suspense sort of film about what’s he going to do now. And I liked that that was a sort of different take that I hadn’t seen before and that changed the focus and made it more about guilt and conscience and sort of the weight of all of that on a person and what it means to carry that burden. That interested me greatly.
Ashley: Yeah. And I totally get that. So that’s sort of the angle you’re coming at with this material. Were there some big parts of the book that maybe you had to cut for whatever reason, they weren’t cinematic or they just didn’t quite work on the script? I’m always curious just to kind of hear of that process going from the book to the movie. What did you cut? Did you have to add some things? Were some things that were not in the book that you had to add just to make it more cinematic?
Scott: Definitely the book is very cinematic. It’s very visual. It’s written in this sort of very sparse tense sort of language that creates a lot of open imagery and he’s a great writer that way, Galgat. And then just the translation from South Africa to the United States, of course with its own set of new ideas and specificity that made it different. But in general, the big beats of the novel are pretty much kept intact until the end. And the book is… the ultimate themes of the book are stuff about the cycle of violence and about the unstoppable cyclical force of it. And there are elements of that in the movie for sure.
But how that comes to bear at the end of the book kind of brings in some coincidence and circumstance into the end of the book that works as a literary device but with less… for example, there’s this like circus that comes into town and there’s this tiger that ends up busting into the courthouse and doing all these things, which works really well as long as it sounds… it works on the page, but that was never gonna work in a movie because it was the entire climax was triggered by this sort of crazed animal that had nothing to do with the rest of the story. But I had to change that and simplify that. Wasn’t gonna get a tiger down this, on this, or shoot and let them run through the set.
That was never gonna happen. But I just simplified that and made it more about the characters and focus. That was really the work that was done with clearing out a lot of the external stuff. Even in the editing process, a lot of the subplots went away as we just focused on [inaudible 00:19:13] the man on the run and this made it… just cleared a path for his guilt to [inaudible 00:19:20] the main driving force of the film and the story.
Ashley: Yeah. No, that’s great. So I’m curious. You’ve worked a lot in features, you’ve worked a lot in TV. Maybe you can talk about some of the things you like about TV writing, some of the things you don’t like compared to feature writing. And same thing, what are the things you like about feature writing versus TV writing and what are the things you like better about TV writing?
Scott: Yeah. One thing I feel very fortunate that I have been able to do some different things and it scratches different inches, you know? For example, writing my independent films that I try to direct like That Evening Sun and The Quarry, I’m able to explore some more character-based work whereas like writing for films like Halloween Kills was it just wrote… it plays with, allows me to use different muscles. And like [inaudible 00:20:16] and just having… writing for other directors, especially someone like David Gordon Green who you know is going to take what you do and just make it excellent. It allows you to just dream big and let constraints of your mind and sort of just dream up the wildest ideas.
That’s a lot of fun. And so I enjoy [inaudible 00:20:39] writing good, even though I’m an introvert like many writers and being in a writer’s room can be challenging at times. It just wears me out because I don’t… being in a room with people all day is [inaudible 00:20:50] being alone. But I do find [inaudible 00:20:52] creation inside that writer’s room. Much like the process for the writing part on a feature, having more voices can really, you can churn through story ideas so much more quickly. And that’s really powerful when you’re trying to figure it out an entire 10- or 12-episode season, and that becomes fun. I really enjoy the process of revisiting characters and getting deeper.
And the deeper you get into a TV show, the more your scenes can be about, just about characters and you can have simpler scenes that are just people talking about this little thing. Not every single scene has to drive the story forward in TV the way it does in a movie. You have more time and more flexibility and I also like that quite a bit.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. So how can people see The Quarry? What’s the release schedule gonna be like and how can people find it?
Scott: April 17th, it comes out on VOD. It’s a crazy time with all the stay at home and quarantine, but I hope that that… what’s cool about it is we decided just to press ahead with our releasing knowing people are gonna want something to watch. And so I’m excited for people to get to see it. The ad will be available on VOD, on all the major platforms on April 17th.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. And what’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing I will round up for the show notes.
Scott: Yeah, no, I appreciate it. I am proudly anti-social media so [inaudible 00:22:30] of my career probably, but I just have… not proudly, just not so interested. I’m just like it’s not something that I do and it’s more about… I have OCD so I waste all my time all day long.
Ashley: Yeah. No, I’m kind of with you on that.
Scott: Spreading over my account, so I just decided to not do that. But I’m sure there’s gonna be some Instagram and Twitter accounts for the film, hopefully. And you can check out Lionsgate. Lionsgate is putting the movie out so I’m sure they’ll have updates and stuff on their socials as well.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. Well, Scott, I appreciate your coming on and talking with me today. Good luck with this film and good luck with your future films as well.
Scott: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Ashley: Thank you, will talk to you later. Bye.
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 they wanna produce. Dozens of producers are in the system looking for screenplays right now. There have been a number of success stories come out of this service, you can find out about all the SYS Select successes by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/success. Also on SYS podcast Episode #222, I talk with Steve Deering who was the first official success story to come out of the SYS Select database.
When you join SYS Select you get access to the screenplay database along with all the other services that we’re providing to SYS Select members. These services include the newsletter, the monthly newsletter goes out to a list of over 400 producers who are actively seeking writers and screenplays. Each SYS Select member can pitch one screenplay in this monthly newsletter. We also provide screenwriting leads, we have partnered with one of the premiere paid screenwriting leads services, 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 10 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 are looking for shorts, features, TV and web series, pilots all types of projects. If you sign up for SYS Select, you’ll get these leads emailed directly to you several times per week. Also, you 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. We also have a number of screenwriting classes that are recorded and available in the SYS Select forum. These are all the classes that I’ve done over the years, so you’ll have access to those whenever you want once you join.
The classes cover every part of writing your screenplay from concept to outlining, to the first act, second act, 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’d like to learn more about, please go to www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com.
On the next episode of the podcast, I’m gonna be interviewing actor-producer-director and writer David Wall. He just did a new film called Gold Dust. We talk about that film, how he got that going, so keep an eye out for that episode next week. To wrap things up, I just wanna touch on a few things from today’s interview with Scott. I thought it was really interesting, his story about how he met the other producer from Georgia. This is a real good example of how networking actually works. So often, and I find myself in this situation, especially when I first got to Hollywood. You get here and you know that networking and relationships are a big part of this industry. I remember again, especially when I first got to Hollywood, I’d really make an effort to go to some of these shindigs and I never really got anything out of it.
I never met that producer, I’m from Maryland, so I never met that producer from Maryland. But I think this is a real good example. And over the years I have made connections and I have networked and I have made, you know, formed friendships and relationships with industry people. And you just, you never know what you’re gonna connect on. And I think that’s really the key. The key is not, oh well he got lucky because he met this guy from Georgia, but the fact of the matter is he was putting himself out there. If you’re just always putting yourself out there, you are just sincere and genuine with your interests, you’re friendly to people, eventually you’re gonna meet people that you do connect with.
Maybe you’re not from Georgia, maybe you’re from, again, like me from Maryland. And eventually I would meet those other film makers from Maryland. In fact I have actually. Gavin Peretti is actually one of the producers on The Rideshare Killer and he’s coincidentally from Maryland. I definitely think we did connect on that level. Again, this is just an example. He was one of the producers on… he was the AD on The Pinch is how I met him. Again, we just connected, and then I brought him along on as a producer onto The Rideshare Killer. Again, this is like, it’s actual networking. I don’t feel like you have to like go into these things. Because this was always my thing, again, being so pragmatic and really trying to like maximize value.
I would go into these things. Whether it was going to like a networking event where maybe someone was speaking or maybe it was just a cocktail hour. I would go to these things like, okay, I gotta talk to people and pass my card out. I think really what I was missing was I just need to go there and just be honest and sincere and genuine and just talk to people and let these things happen organically. Because I can look at all the relationships that I’ve built over the 20 years that I’ve been in Hollywood. And there is a sincerity and honesty to those relationships where we generally speaking most of these people we’ve bonded with in some way, just on a sort of a friendly level, more than just something, just some sort of awkward forced situation where you go somewhere and you’re trying to force the situation and force the relationship.
Never worked for me. And again, you just never know what you’re gonna connect on. So the key is to put yourself out there a lot. It’s not to try and find other people, although maybe that wouldn’t be a bad strategy. Find other people. Maybe there’s some networking events for your particular college. That would be a great place because again, you’d start off with… if you were meeting in LA other people that went to your college, you would start off with a common interest. Just again, and it would be a very organic one. You could share those stories. “Oh, remember when…” “Oh yeah, this dorm,” or, “That dorm,” or, “The cafeteria,” you know, you would have something in common.
But I think as just like a model as like a template I always felt like I was going into these things and I always felt like I tried to sort of force them. And I never, as I said, I never made any connections really at these sort of networking events that I would go to. And again, I think it was because maybe I was trying to force it too much, and perhaps maybe not outgoing enough and other things like that. But that’s the thing that I just really, that struck me as this is that a lot of times there are these moments that do seem a little bit lucky. Oh, he met this other producer from Georgia, he was from Georgia. They connected. But there was probably a lot of people that Scott met over the years that he didn’t connect with.
Producers from other places, from California or Seattle or whatever. And he probably didn’t connect with those. He didn’t have that common interest or that common values or just background or whatever it was. And that made the connection. He didn’t have that with other people. So those relationships didn’t work out. We’re only hearing about and looking at the one relationship that did work out. And so it appears to us, “Oh wow, it was so lucky.” The other thing, and hopefully some of this comes through with the interview, Scott is not someone I know. I’ve never met him. The only interaction I’ve had, maybe there’s a minute or two before the recording actually starts, but pretty much all of my interaction with him was through this podcast and the feeling I got, and I hopefully you guys got the same feeling as well, is that he’s kind of an outgoing, very friendly guy.
He seemed very personable, intelligent, articulate. And again, those are all things that obviously help all of us. I mean those are just communication skills and being able to relate to people. Those are all skills that we need in every facet of our lives. I think, again, I think my problem with these network events, I just always felt like I was maybe trying to force it as opposed to just trying to be sincere and genuine. Anyways, hopefully you got something out of the interview with Scott. That’s our show for this week. Thank you for listening.