This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 337: Jonathan Milott And Cary Murnion.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #337 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today, I am interviewing directors, Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott. They started right out of college, starting their own production company, doing commercials, and then slowly they worked their way up to narrative features. They have a new horror film coming out called Becky starring Joel McHale and Kevin James. So stay tuned for that interview. The SYS Six-Figure screenplay contest is open for submissions, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. The contest closes on July 31st, so we’re on the final stretch now with well less than a month to get your submissions in.
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. Every submission will get read by at least three professional readers, and I’ve lined up about 40 industry pros to judge the scripts that move out of the first round. We’re giving away thousands in cash and prizes to the winners. Once again, if this sounds like something you’d like to learn more about or perhaps enter, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. And if you’re listening to this after the contest closes, we are planning on running this contest every year. So just check out the landing page again at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest for any upcoming dates might be approaching.
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So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing directors, Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Jonathan and Cary to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Jonathan: Well, thanks for having us. We’re excited to talk to 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? Cary, maybe you could go first, we’ll kinda get accustomed to your voice. And then Jonathan, once he’s done, maybe you can give us your overview.
Cary: Hi, this is Cary. And yes, Jon and I met at art school at Parsons School of Design, New York City. We were studying graphic design and animation and working together in school, and then we started business together when we graduated school. That was a kind of a design animation business. We worked in the advertising world for a couple of years. We were given opportunity by Nike to pitch to do a short film and they thought, they didn’t quite know what we were gonna do, and we took it as an opportunity to work on our first live action project. That turned into a short film called The Shortest Race, and that led to us then gradually over the years, kinda doing short films, doing commercials.
We did a short film called Boob, which was a horror comedy. We went to South by Southwest and that’s where Elijah Wood and his company SpectreVision saw the movie through a connection of ours, Todd Brown, who works with XYZ Films. That led to us pitching on doing Cooties as our first feature film. We also got the people at XYZ and that led to Bushwick. That was one of our ideas that led the Bushwick. And then I’ll let Jon kind of fill in some details on the rest of how we got to Becky.
Ashley: Okay. Yeah. Perfect. Perfect. Yeah, Jonathan, let’s hear your sort of similar overview. You can even back it up a little bit. I’d be curious just to see where you came from and then maybe pick up where Cary’s story left off.
Jonathan: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. Cary and I came from kinda different parts of the world. I lived all around. I lived in Algeria and, but we, yeah, we met in New York. Cary grew up in New York. And yeah, we kinda just come at it from a creative standpoint. As Cary said, the first opportunity to do live action was with this Nike project, and we had no idea what that entailed. We know we wanna do slow motion, so we called up a camera house and said, “Can we get this slow-motion camera?” They asked if we were the producer, and at that point we didn’t even know what a producer was or did. In fact, we barely even knew what directing was up until the point where somehow, we got the camera house to pretty much produce the film for us, get us all the equipment.
And we were on set and the slow-motion camera operator was about to roll, and he turned to me and said, “Do you wanna give any direction?” I didn’t even know what that meant. So it was really on-the-job training from there on out. This is probably back in 2003, so a while ago at this point we have a lot more experience now. But yeah, so flash forward to, we did Bushwick and we got agents, we got a manager, the managers and agents are continually trying to help us get projects. For instance, in this project, they gave us a script, we responded to the script and we pitched to the producers. And essentially in the pitch, like the idea of this film, but we think it can be really taken a lot further and really deliver on the premise of this 13-year-old girl seeking revenge.
So we did that, we won the pitch and we started working with some writers to develop the project. Now a few years later here we are talking about its release.
Ashley: Perfect. Yeah, perfect. No, I think that’s a great origin story. I’m gonna dig back into Becky. I just wanna follow up on a couple of things you just said. The first thing, so you guys got out of college, you start this graphic design business. I’m guessing by the time Nike offers you to do a short film, you were doing some pretty high end stuff, probably had worked with them a lot. So that seems like kind of an obvious, bridge to sort of the other side. But what did the company look like when you just got out of college? I mean, did you have some idea about how to get clients? Like how did you even know how to start a graphic design business? And what did that look like for the first few years to actually get to that point where you’re servicing clients like Nike?
Cary: We were, I mean, we started interning at companies when we were in school. That gave us a view into how to work with clients. Then we also… going to school in New York City, it started to give us connections to… actually one of our first clients was a gallery, it was a small photo gallery that needed some work done for their website and some of their work on their advertising material. And we just, we slowly built our business. It was always, for us, we didn’t wanna get into big things of debt. We wanted to always kind of have the work coming in and we started really small. We started working at Jon’s apartment. I was in his living room and he was in his bedroom and then we moved up into an office and that’s when we took on one employee.
So we really tried to be smart about it as much as we could, and we didn’t try to rush anything and that’s for us, we wanted to also expand what we wanted to do in our career. And Jon and I had always loved movies. When we’re in school, we didn’t quite know how to get to that point, and we found our way by taking these risks where we’d do things that we weren’t necessarily thinking that people would expect from us. We took those risks and in this way kind of paid off.
Ashley: Yeah. So let’s dig into your latest film, Becky starring, Joel McHale and Kevin James. It sounds like this is an idea that you guys cooked up, eventually pitched, brought in some writers. So let’s talk about that specifically. Just talk about the development, what was sort of the genesis of this idea and how did you guys develop the idea before you started pitching it?
Jonathan: Yeah, and to reiterate it was the producers brought us an original script and we… like I said, we liked the idea, but we pitched them kind of a different take on it. So we still… Nick, who was the original writer still has the credit because there’s still a lot of his kind of bones and structure in there. But we thought it could just be developed more. You know, it’s like, I think we’ve all seen those trailers for movies or posters that were promises, and we’re just like, “You know what, that just deliver on what was promised.” So we wanted to make sure that when you hear that pitch, you know, home alone with a 13 year old girl and a lot more violent, that it’s gonna deliver on that.
It really just had to have those exciting moments, those revenge moments that really paid off in a fun kind of unexpected way. That was one of the big things that we did. We really worked hard on fleshing out the main character, Becky, making sure that she has this character arc where you kinda get a sense of why she would be motivated to take it to that extreme. We didn’t want it to be like any question of once you got the house [inaudible 00:09:39]. We wanted to keep it grounded in that sense that there is a potential serious reason why this girl would just go off and essentially just want revenge. So we worked hard with the writers on developing that aspect and then just having a lot of fun with thinking how could a 13 year old girl [inaudible 00:09:57] hardened criminals that are obviously bigger, tougher, older? Just finding those tools that would be around a lake house and toys and things that we just don’t Jon wick or Tarantino revenge thriller, just really taking a unique look at what she could do.
Ashley: I’m sorry, let me back up one minute. Can you guys just give us a quick premise or a log line for the film? I usually ask that before we start talking about the film and I just overlooked it this time, but I think that would be helpful just to give the audience a kind of a sense for what this film is about as we start to talk about it.
Cary: Yeah. I mean the most basic elevator pitch for this is a ultra-violent Home Alone with a 13 year old girl. If you wanna get a little bit more, it would be that a father takes his daughter to a remote lake house to try to reconnect after the loss of the mother and a group of hardened, Neo Nazi criminals come to the house and they have to survive.
Ashley: Yeah. So just again, let’s take a step back on terms of the screenplay. So this is something your agent or manager, is an original script that they brought to you and in general, is that how scripts flow to you typically? How do you guys typically get scripts?
Jonathan: Yeah, it actually goes both… it goes a lot of different ways. For instance, with Cooties and this, it was a script that was brought to us. As directors usually when we get a script from our agents or producers, we pitch our take on it and then [inaudible 00:11:33] the script and not really wanting to change it a lot, and just talking about how we’ll visualize it, direct it, the tone and things like that, all the way to us developing ideas and working with writers like we did with Bushwick. And in a sense, this was a kinda hybrid as well because we pitched our take, which did involve quite a bit of rewriting. It was very significant rewrite, not just a quick pass over it. It was a significant rewrite. So we work directly with the writers to kind of define the final script.
Cary: But that’ something we, in terms of the flow of things, we like to keep many options open, where we’re developing stuff on our own like ideas that we have generated, and then we are taking scripts both from anywhere. Like we’ve started to develop relationships with different production companies and financiers. They’ll send us scripts that they’re working on, we’ll look at scripts from our agents and managers. We’ll look at… a big thing for us is that [inaudible 00:12:37] because writers are always… most good writers, they have 10 unproduced scripts just because of how things go. So we found that a good way to find and generate [inaudible 00:12:47] is to make sense of writers, see what they’re working on, talk to them, and then we can even like brainstorm on things and create things that way.
For us, we just have, we were open to various ways, and I think if you get stuck in just waiting for scripts from, if you have a manager or an agent, that’s not the way to go, we’re always kinda generating our own stuff.
Ashley: Yeah. What was the state of the production when it came to you? Did they have Kevin, James and Joel McHale already cast? Did they have money in place so you knew that it was gonna get greenlit? What is sort of the state of a project like this when it comes to you?
Jonathan: When it came to us originally, it was pretty early on. They… I don’t believe they had financing. So yeah, it was…
Cary: No, they had none.
Jonathan: Yeah, they had nothing. So essentially we rewrote the script and then we started going out to cast and financing. And sometimes it’s one or the other, you usually have to, you know, if you’re gonna get financing, especially in the indie world, they wanna know what kinda cast you have involved. There’s an equation that we’re not quite privy to, but that includes foreign sales and domestic sales and all this value that they can attribute to a specific star or something that helps you get financing. I think in our case, once we revisited the script and got it to a place where we wanted to, we kind of went back to our agents UTA and they really helped package it and help develop more of the cast and get financier’s onboard.
Ashley: Yeah. And why not work with the original writer? Was he already sort of gone from the project when it came to you guys? Did you have conversations with him? Why bring on new writers?
Jonathan: Well, it’s kind of a complex question. I would say that the easiest is that we did have a [inaudible 00:14:39] the writers who did the rewrite, and we felt that they could bring to the initial script something that wasn’t there, as opposed to just kind of with the original writer. So it was more just that we had a working relationship and we felt really good about Ruckus and Lane’s ability to bring tension and point of view. Lane is a female writer, so we felt that that was important in terms of bringing that aspect to the 13-year-old girl protagonist. I think it was like multiple things, but mostly those.
Cary: And this was Nick’s first screenplay. So I think it was just something like, he came new. This was just an idea that came to him and he wrote it down and it was amazing that he made this script, somebody not having ever written anything before. And so we all kinda knew, okay, this is a great start, let’s finish it with writers who have written multiple scripts and have this kind of tone already.
Ashley: Got you. Let’s talk about casting. And especially, I’d like to get your thoughts on sort of casting against type. Joel McHale and Kevin James, obviously they’re known for their great comedic roles, you cast them in a dramatic role. I’m just curious, number one, how much do you think that influences their decision to do a project, an independent project like this where they’re getting offers for roles that they don’t typically get? Then as directors, two, how does that fit into you? I mean, as again, these guys are great comedic guys. How does that fit into what you’re trying to do with sort of an action thriller?
Jonathan: Yeah. Right from the start we knew we wanted to find a character, find an actor who would play this character of Dominic, the Neo Nazi cult leader, prison escapee, bad guy. We wanted someone that was leaning more towards the cult leader and when we lean in that direction for us, it’s someone that can be magnetic, have a lot of charisma, really be able to persuade people calmly, intellectually and really not go over the top. That was why we were kinda leaning against type I think for that character. For us it’s just something that we like to do anyways. We like to subvert what people know about actors, because it’s just kind of an interesting thing when you come into a film thinking you’re getting one actor doing one thing, and then the whole thing is flipped on its head and hopefully puts you more in the mindset of the characters in the movie where you don’t [inaudible 00:17:12].
So I think that’s where we come from. And then once Kevin James showed interest in it, we just really started a great dialogue with him and made sure that we were on the same page, tonally, performance-wise, and it just went from there. The same with Joel McHale. Both of them decided to do something very different than what they’d normally done. And I think in the end they really, really did it.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. So how can people see Becky? Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Jonathan: It’s actually opening in a lot of drive in theaters across the country. So on June 5th over [inaudible 00:17:50] in theatres at this point, maybe some are, but then also VOD, any kind of VOD like iTunes, Amazon, VUDU, all those things. But yeah, we’re really excited because I think it really is a perfect movie to see at drive in where you can kinda see it gigantic and have that experience with other people.
Ashley: 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 will round up for the show notes.
Jonathan: The most thing that we do is Instagram. We really post a lot of behind the scenes on Instagram and update that a lot. But you can also check out our website, www.caryandjon.com. We’re not as good at keeping that up, but between that and Instagram there’s a lot to take in.
Ashley: Okay, well, perfect. I appreciate this Jonathan and Cary. Thanks for coming on and talking with me, I will round up those links for the show notes, so people can click over to them. Good luck with this film and good luck on your feature films as well.
Cary: Awesome. Thanks so much. I appreciate it.
Jonathan: Thank you.
Ashley: Thank you. We’ll talk to you guys later. Bye.
Cary: Alright. Bye 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 Agnieszka Holland, who just did a film called Mr. Jones, which is a Cold War thriller. She’s a very accomplished Polish director and a real artist, and has some very interesting things to say about film and her career in general. I mentioned her a couple of weeks ago as being the next episode, but I just got my dates off a little bit, but she will be our guest next week. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.