This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 333: With Actor/Filmmaker Clark Duke.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #333 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing actor and writer-director Clark Duke, who’s had a good run recently in comedies like Hot Tub Time Machine. Now he is behind the camera with his first feature film. It’s a film called Arkansas, which he co-wrote and directed. We talk about his career breaking in and how he was able to get this project produced. So stay tuned for that interview. Quick announcement about the SYS Six Figure Screenplay contest. It is now open for submissions, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. The regular deadline ends June 30th.
And then the final deadline, the final late deadline is July 31st. So just two more months to get the screenplays entered. The idea for the 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. Every submission will get read by at least three professional readers. And I’ve lined up about 40 industry judges to read the scripts that move out of the first round. We’re giving away thousands in cash and prizes to the winners. Once again, this sounds like something you’d like to learn more about, or perhaps enter, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest.
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. 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 #333. 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 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 actor and writer-director Carl Duke. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Clark to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Clark: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Ashley: To start out, and I think this could be interesting because your film is Arkansas and you are originally from there. So maybe you can talk about your upbringing and then we’ll hopefully segue into your latest film. Where did you grow up and kinda how did you get started in the entertainment business?
Clark: Yeah, it’s kind of a bizarre chain of events. I was born in Arkansas and then when I was about five years old, my mother had a challenged friend in Los Angeles that we came to visit that was working as an actor at the time. Her manager saw me at five years old and said, “We gotta send him out on some auditions.” So he literally sent me on a commercial audition and I booked it and ended up doing a ton of commercials, and then CBS signed me to a holding deal at like six years old. So I ended up on this multicam sitcom called Hearts Afire with John Ritter and Billy Bob Thornton and Markie Post and this great cast for three years. And then after that, we just moved back to Arkansas and I went to middle school and high school there.
But I knew I wanted to work in the business and I knew I wanted to be a director. I was about 12 years old or so. So I knew I wanted to go to film school, so I ended up graduating high school a year early and going to film school at Loyola Marymount University. From there, my thesis film was this show called Clark and Michael with myself and Michael Cera that we ended up selling to CBS and doing as a web series at the time, about 10 years before a web series was a viable thing to be. Because I think our show came out before YouTube existed. So it’s funny because that’s kind of still finding an audience to this day. Like I started posting them all on Instagram a week or two ago and a thing to see people discover something you made when you were 21.
And then from there I… like I said I went to film school and Clark and Michael was something that I wrote and directed and edited and I really thought that’s more what my adult career would be, which was writing and directing, but I sort of ended up having the bigger acting career the last decade or so, which has been a lot of fun and I love doing, but I’ve always wanted to direct and I’ve been trying to direct the whole time, so…
Ashley: Perfect. Yeah. Let me jump back there to Clark and Michael a little bit. You mentioned it was sort of before YouTube. Obviously if you were to create something like this now, that would be, you know, film festivals, YouTube, Vimeo, whatever you would get it up there. What did you guys do to market? How did you get Clark and Michael out into the industry? How did you get recognition for it?
Clark: I mean, I don’t know, as far as like a mass audience that ever got [inaudible 00:05:33] [laughs] to or discovered by as far as me personally, it got passed around town and it got me agents basically. That was what I got out of it. And I mean, it literally gave me a career in so many ways. Like the first movie I did- Sex Drive, the writer and director of that movie, Sean Andrews and I saw Clark and Michael and was like, “Oh, I like this guy.”
Ashley: I got you. Yeah. Yeah. Sex Drive is one of those movies that popped up on Netflix years ago. It’s a kind of underrated film. It’s actually like a really funny movie, but was kind of a little under the radar, I think.
Clark: Yeah. I think it’s super under… I think it’s a very underrated comedy. It’s one of those movies like Saving Silverman that it’s always on cable. And I always laugh watching.
Ashley: Let’s just jump into your latest film, Arkansas, starring Vince Vaughn and Liam Hemsworth. Maybe to start out, you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is this film all about?
Clark: Arkansas is sort of crime gangster movie which you haven’t really seen before. It follows the rise of this drug kingpin played by Vince Vaughn from the ‘80s to the present. And then juxtapose that with in the present day, these two young guys played by Liam Hemsworth and myself that worked for Vince’s character and through a series of events screw up so bad the [inaudible 00:06:54] collision course with Vince where basically he’s trying to kill us.
Ashley: Gotcha. Where did this idea come from? What was sort of the Genesis or the kernel of the idea that grew into this film?
Clark: Well, the film is an adaptation of a book called Arkansas by John Brandon. So that was the biggest thing, but also like you said, I’m from Arkansas and my grandpa was kinda tertiary Dixie mafia character that I’d always wanted to write something about him in that world and the place where I’m from. So when I read the book, I was like, “Oh, this is it. This character, Frog it’s sort of somatically scratching every issue I had to write about my grandfather.” Then these two young guys spoke to so much stuff that I wanted to say about where I’m from and kind of my generation. It was sort of a perfect storm when I found the book.
Ashley: Yeah. So then let’s talk about adapting the book into a screenplay. You share writing credit on this with Andrew Boonkrong. Maybe you can just talk us through that process a little bit. What does that look like? Did you guys get in a room and come up with an outline and divvy up scenes, were you in the room while you’re writing? Did you compare scenes, rewrite scenes? Maybe talk about that sort of collaborative process a little bit.
Clark: Sure. It was interesting how we did it because… and it took longer than probably a lot of scripts do just because I was writing it on set of movies and in between jobs and I was still actively working as an actor the whole time. So it was kind of working around that schedule. And we were barely ever in the same room together writing it. The way we initially broke it up is I wrote all the Kyle and Swin chapters, the two young guys that myself and Liam play and he wrote all the Frog chapters. Then we would swap pages back and forth, and then I compiled and Frankensteined everything together and you do a pass and make it cohesive in one voice. But it was kind of [inaudible 00:09:02] and done remotely between the two of us.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah, no, that’s interesting. And so what was the… what were the steps as you’re writing this, were you starting to send it out to your manager, to your agent to try and get some feedback, see what this was? Had you been laying the groundwork for doing some more directorial work throughout this process? What was this sort of like as you’re going through this and you starting getting the script done? How did you actually market that screenplay?
Clark: Well, I mean, my reps always knew that I wanted to write and direct even if they weren’t necessarily facilitating or pushing it that much because I was working as an actor. But I’ve directed stuff over the years, like short films and funnier dive videos and I did a couple of pilots. So it wasn’t like I hadn’t been doing any writing or directing at all, like I’ve kind of always been actively trying to do stuff. I didn’t really show the finished script to anyone until it was completed because I kind of am of the opinion that you only get, you can really only hope for like one read from people. I’d prefer to send any finished script than like pieces of stuff. And the initial draft of the script was like 200 pages long or something because we just basically included everything from the book.
So the… a lot of the work was the rewriting and the editing and just kind of sizzling this thing down into something that can be a movie and not a book. The trickiest part is structurally of the adaptation and it took a long time, which is figuring out the structure. Once I landed on five acts that sorta made sense in my head because the tricky part was in the book, the audience doesn’t find out that Frog and the [inaudible 00:10:49] owner person until Kyle did at the end of the story. And this stuff I’m saying only makes sense to people who read the book or seen the movie, but you basically, you had this big narrative trick they used in the book that it’s basically impossible to replicate in the film.
That was kind of the first big hurdle was figuring out okay, like… So then the thing that you’re… the solution that occurred to me was we’ll just let the audience in on it and then the audience is way ahead of the character the whole time and that tension for you. Instead of letting it be this big reveal, that shocking reveal at the end, just introduce Frog early on and let that just be this like ticking time bomb that you’re watching happen. So that works out well. And then the book is super nonlinear, like the film is, so that was the other thing to figure out, just how that, what that structure looked like. And when I landed on five act that kind of everything fell into place after.
Then from there it was just working with the kind of economy of scale that screenwriting has versus a novel, you know, you’ve got 110 pages to fit in 200 pages of material, basically.
Ashley: Yeah. How did you find this book? And I’m curious, you’re telling me a number of the challenges to adapting the book. I’m curious what kind of really appealed to you about the book. But maybe you can talk us through that process a little bit. How did you find the book, ultimately option the book? What was your relationship like with the original author and working with him through this process?
Clark: I found the book just at a bookstore because I read a lot and it was published by McSweeney’s and I was reading a ton of McSweeney’s stuff at the time because they just were generally pretty great. And I just, like I said, being from Arkansas saw this book called Arkansas, I was just like, “Well, I gotta read this.” I mean, the thing that initially grabbed me was the dialogue and that’s what made me think, “Oh, this is a movie.” Because if you can get… actors are gonna want to say these words. Like the dialogue was so good and I tried to keep as much as I possibly could in the movie. Yeah, I guess that was the initial draw for me, the dialogue. I optioned the book, as soon as I read it, and I ended up becoming friends with John Brandon.
Like he came down to LA once or twice and we hung out and we spoke [inaudible 00:13:10] so fun, we’ve stayed in touch ever since. And he’s written a lot of books since and is an incredible writer. I would recommend all of his books, but Arkansas is actually his debut.
Ashley: Okay. So eventually you guys were able to whittle this thing down and you had a script. What was your next steps? You had a script that you liked and then, so what’s your next step to moving this thing along? At that point, did you take it to your agents and managers?
Clark: Yeah, I mean, I had taken the script to them when it was like 180 pages long, I think just to get like initial thoughts on, because you just reach a point where you’re kind of burned out and need eyes on it. And it was funny because I mean, everybody’s knows it’s just way too long and then there was a version where I think we got it to 130 pages and it was like everybody liked it, but they weren’t… once I cut it down to 110, everyone loved it. So I thought that was a really interesting… That was a kind of an interesting lesson that I’ve noticed a lot on a lot of different projects over the years. A lot of the time people, everybody wants to give you notes when they read something and most of the time, especially if it’s people that aren’t writers, they don’t even really know how to articulate what it is that’s wrong with it or what they don’t like about it.
So they’ll kind of fish and search around and tell you a hundred different things. When I think the reality is it’s just too long. I think that was kind of a big lesson for me.
Ashley: Yeah. Let’s talk about your transition from actor to writer-director as you were approaching this film. And I think it’s also that this film it’s very much out of tone with the movies that you’re known for. Obviously, Sex Drive we mentioned, but Hot Tub Time Machine, some of these other movies are really broad comedies. Did you get any pushback on that? You’re coming, “I wanna be a writer director, but hey, I’m known for these very broad comedies.” Did you get any pushback from your management or ultimately the investors on that?
Clark: Yeah, none of them wanted me to be in this film really [laughs]. [inaudible 00:15:21] to be totally honest because I don’t see why not to be at this point. Yeah, there was pushback because you get, like you said, you get type cast in a role and that’s all people see you as. So, I mean, that was part of the, my reasoning behind trying to really change the way I looked in the movie. Because A, it helped me as an actor kind of compartmentalize and get into character. But yeah, I did. You get in this thing where you do one thing well, and then you get cast to sort of that same thing over and over. And I also am very specific looking and recognize it from those movies. So I wanted to change the way I looked just so A, for myself to help with the character work, but also just so that I wasn’t a distraction or bringing as much of that baggage with me to the audience.
But I also, I was frankly like nobody else is gonna write me a part that’s good. And I’m really glad that I did act on it because I enjoy doing it and I think I would have been devastated if I hadn’t been.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. So as you were going along with this process, you have the script, you’re sending it out to your management and stuff, was there a moment where you felt like, “Okay…” that tipping, there’s a tipping point where all of a sudden you started to realize, “Okay, this movie is actually gonna get produced.” I’m curious what that tipping point was. Obviously you have Vince Vaughn and Liam Hemsworth. I’d be curious maybe to hear just your thoughts on how that affected sort of the trajectory of getting this thing into production once they got on. Were they big enough names to kinda get the financing in place? But maybe you can just talk about that. Was there a tipping point with this project where all of a sudden you realized, “Hey, this thing is gonna actually make it into production?”
Clark: Yeah. The answer to all those questions is Liam, Liam Hemsworth, deciding to do the movie. That’s the answer to all those questions [laughs]. Yeah. I mean, that’s it. There’s no movie without Liam before Liam.
Ashley: I got you. And what was the secret to getting him signed on just, you know, connections with management, that sort of stuff?
Clark: We’re at the same agency and they sent him the script and he, to my great shock and thrill, liked the script and wanted to do it. We didn’t know each other, we’d never met, and he certainly didn’t get paid on this movie. Like nobody made any money on this movie. It was just because it was there, so it was strictly him responding to the material.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. What’s your advice for people that are looking to break in as screenwriters? My podcast is definitely cut out for screenwriters. But do you have any specific advice of trying to move in and become a working screenwriter?
Clark: Honestly, not really. Because the thing that you’ll see if you talk to the people is nobody has the same story of how they got there. Like it’s just such a, it’s such a brutal business to try to get into in general. I mean, I know for me, obviously me being an actor helped me at least get in the door and get people to read stuff, but it certainly didn’t really make people wanna make the stuff or buy the stuff even. I have no clue. I get asked this a lot and I always wish I had a better answer, but I don’t. I don’t know what it would be because everybody’s path is so different. I mean, it’s like asking somebody if you have any advice on how to get struck by lightning, you know?
Ashley: Yeah. I got you. What’s next for you? What’s what are you working on now?
Clark: I’ve adapted another book that I’d like to direct also, and I’ve got a couple of other scripts, feature scripts ready to go. So I wanna, you know, whenever this coronavirus nightmare ends I’m hoping to set up one of those and direct another movie.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. For sure. How can people see Arkansas? Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Clark: Yeah. The movie comes out May 5th everywhere, except theaters basically. You can buy it on Apple TV, Amazon, on Demand, DVD, Blu-Ray I mean, literally anywhere, but movie theaters, which are closed. You can watch the movie on May 5th and please do.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. And what are you hearing from the distributors on a movie like this that’s not gonna get a theatrical release now, obviously with COVID. What’s the sort of the gist you’re getting from the distributors about these films? Why are they releasing it now? Why not wait six months and kinda see how the economy turns?
Clark: I mean, truthfully, that’s kind of a question above my pay grade. I think this was always our release date, so we’ve just kept our release date. I mean the reality is like, what are we gonna shift to Christmas and come out the same weekend and it’s like James Bond and Marvel movies like that, does that make any sense? So, my only hope for an indie film, like your theatrical release is usually not the bulk of your kind of revenue anyway. And most of the country doesn’t have theaters that are showing small indie film releases. Like it’s really just like a New York, LA thing. So my hope is that maybe since everybody is in need of escapism in entertainment, maybe they’ll find the movie on VOD and at home in a way that they wouldn’t have before.
Clark: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. 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’ll round up for my show notes?
Clark: Sure. I have an Instagram, just my name at Clark Duke, which I started at the studio’s request just to help promote the movie. So it’s the only thing about a month old. I’m trying to trying to be active on there.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. So, well, perfect Clark. I appreciate your taking some time out to talk with me. Good luck with this film and good luck with your future films as well.
Clark: Thanks very much, man. I appreciate it.
Ashley: Thank you. We’ll talk to you later. Bye.
Ashley: A quick plug for the SYS Screenwriting Analysis Service. It’s a really economical way to get a high-quality professional evaluation on your screenplay. When you buy our three pack, you get evaluations at just $67 per script for feature films and just $55 for teleplays. All the readers have professional experience reading for studios, production companies, contests and agencies. You can read a short bio on each reader on our website and you can pick the reader who you think is the best fit for your script. Turnaround time is usually just a few days but rarely more than a week. The readers will evaluate your script on six key factors- concept, character, structure and marketability, tone and overall craft, which includes formatting, spelling and grammar.
Every script will get a grade of pass, consider or recommend, which should help you roughly understand where your script might rank if you were to submit it to a production company or agency. We can provide an analysis on features or television scripts. We also do proofreading without any analysis. We will also look at a treatment or outline and give you the same analysis on it. So if you’re looking to vet some of your project ideas, this is a great way to do it. We will also write your logline and synopsis for you. You can add this logline and synopsis writing service to an analysis or you can simply purchase this service as a standalone product. As a bonus, if your screenplay gets a recommend or a consider from one of our readers, you get to list the screenplay in the SYS Select database, which is a database for producers to find screenplays and a big part of our SYS Select program.
Producers are in the database searching for material on a daily basis, so it’s another great way to get your material in front of them. As a further bonus, if your script gets a recommend from one of our readers, your screenplay will get included in our monthly Best Of newsletter. Each month we send out a newsletter that highlights the best screenplays that have come through our script analysis service. This is monthly newsletter that goes out to our list of over 400 producers who are actively looking for material, so again, this is another great way to get your material out there. So if you want a professional evaluation of your screenplay at a very reasonable price, check out www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants.
On the next episode of the podcast, I’m gonna be interviewing director Vaughn Stein who just directed a film called Inheritance, starring Simon Pegg. We talk about this film and how he was able to get to the point in his career to direct it. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s the show. Thank you for listening.