This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 352: With Filmmaker Will Wernick .
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #352 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 Will Wernick. He just wrote and directed the thriller feature, No Escape. It’s another very timely film about a social media personality, he goes to Russia for the ultimate escape room experience. Will gives us details into the early part of his career and how he got this movie produced. 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. 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 #350. 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 lesso n once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons.
I teach the whole process of how to sell a 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’m interviewing writer-director Will Wernicke. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Will to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Will: 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?
Will: Absolutely. I grew up in a town called Niwot, which is outside of Boulder, Colorado. My parents are both musicians, so I think from an early age I was shown a lot of storytelling and I traveled quite a bit with them around the country. They’re bluegrass musicians, so I was able to see a pretty different side of this country. Multiple different sides of this country. But then from an early age they fostered a love of storytelling. As I got older, I was also really into tech and I think I came to filmmaking originally because I really liked the tech of it, cameras and stuff like that. It wasn’t until later that I started writing. So I went to the University of Colorado, not for film, and I sort of always knew I was gonna come to Los Angeles. About 10 years ago I made the move and came out here and started doing it.
Ashley: Yeah. So that’s interesting. You had a background with these two parents as artists. How do you think that colored your just approach to this? I know a lot of screenwriters, they come maybe from a more traditional background where their parents have sort of typical nine to five jobs. Were there some benefits to having more artistic parents and was there some potential downsides to having parents that were very much in tune with creativity and artistic careers and stuff?
Will: Well, I think there’s probably a disadvantage and advantage to everything. I was adopted when I was seven days old, so I’ve sort of started out life in an interesting way. I got incredibly lucky because they’re wonderful, loving, incredible parents. But I think, no, I think it was a huge benefit. Any sort of creative endeavor I wanted to get into they were in hugely supportive of. And I got to, I played music with them professionally a little bit, and just a lot of things that went into being an artist.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. So let’s talk about some of the short films that you’ve done. On your IMDb page there’s a number of short films leading up to this feature film, No Escape, which we’re gonna talk about in a second. Maybe you can just talk about those a little bit. How did you fund those, how did you promote them? Did you send them to festivals? And ultimately, how did they prepare you for doing a feature film?
Will: I come at this whole thing pretty differently I think from a lot of people, although the sort of DIY director thing is more prevalent than ever. I just got to… The first film I ever worked on was a film called Loggerheads. We knew a producer named Gill Holland, who was making movies, and I met him at a bluegrass festival. He knew I was interested in film and he said, “Come work on this film.” So I just didn’t get paid or anything, I just flew up to North Carolina and worked on it and I was pretty hooked after that. I started making not very many short films and then I self-financed on credit cards, a really tiny feature that I shot in 2008 thinking I could be Robert Rodriguez and go out and do it. It taught me a few things, mainly what I didn’t know about film making.
After that I made maybe five or six shorts. Shorts were never, aren’t really my strong suit. I think short films are actually more difficult in a lot of ways than features. It’s a very different type of storytelling. But all of those were just sort of self-financed and super DIY. I’ve always believed in owning your own gear because then you can do it whenever you want. So I’ve always owned a lot of gear which I’m finally not having to now as we’re making these larger projects. But it was always something where if we had an idea, I had the machinery to do it. When I first came out to Los Angeles, I did a lot of music video type stuff. I was shooting for Activision for a long time, which allowed me to have a lot of the things that I would then use later on to make these things.
Ashley: I got you. So let’s dig into your latest feature film, No Escape. Maybe to start out you can just give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is this film all about?
Will: The film is about a vlogger, a social media influencer who vlogs experiential entertainment. So he travels around looking for scary things, exciting things that he can, and his friends can do and make videos out of them. Our story is about him getting invited to do a big experience in Russia and just heading off without knowing much about it with his girlfriend and his best friends and getting lost in the experience. I think having grown up, I’m sort of the oldest of the millennial generation, I’m 38. I got to go from the time when there’s no internet and we had an Apple II to see the rise of the social media culture that we have now. And I’ve always found it fascinating looking at how we shape our own characters and our own, sort of the perception of our own lives and an escape room seemed like a good mirror for that.
Ashley: I got you. So just in terms of getting this production going, or just even vetting the idea, and you mentioned your other feature that you did, when you had this idea and you were starting to think about this. How did you put it into something that you thought could be marketable? At this point, did you talk to some distributors, did you talk to some producers? Did you start to figure out if there was a market for this movie?
Will: So my first real feature, which came out in 2017 was a movie called Escape Room. And we in sort of late 2015, one of the producers Jeff and Kelly Delson, I was at a meeting with them and offhandedly Jeff mentioned that there had never been an escape room movie, which to me seemed unfathomable. So I went home and wrote a little outline, went back, we got another writer on that movie actually, but we were shooting three months later. So it was sort of like being in Los Angeles long enough to meet the right people, build up enough credit that I could promise I could accomplish something and someone will believe me. And then having sort of a sudden opportunity like that and not flinching and just going for it.
So Escape Room was the film that allowed me to do that. And this is sort of the larger follow-up to that movie.
Ashley: Oh, okay. I see same producer and everything else.
Will: Yeah, there’s a core group of us, Jeff, Kelly, Jeff and Kelly Delson, Sonia Lisette, and then myself who did that first one as producers, and then for this one. A lot of the same financiers and a lot of the same team as well.
Ashley: I got you. So let’s talk about your writing process a little bit. Where do you typically write and when do you typically write? Do you go to Starbucks, you have a home office? Do you write in the morning, do you write in the middle of the night? What is your writing schedule like?
Will: My schedule, I don’t really have any clear schedule. It varies by project. I used to write at a coffee shop every single day, now I write in a home office. I’m sort of a sporadic, I have to write a little bit every day or else it’s not gonna get done, but I’m sort of a, I’ll either write 10 or 15 pages or I’ll write half a page. I think writing for me anyway can’t be forced. But I also don’t write a whole lot that I don’t think I’m gonna make. So I don’t look at writing as sort of the job aspect of this. Writing is something of a means to an end, and the craft of writing is incredibly, it’s an incredible craft. And I know a lot of very good writers here, but for me it was more of a functional thing where it was, if I have a story to tell how am I gonna maintain control of it and writing is where all that starts.
Ashley: Yeah. For sure. How much time do you spend preparing to write versus how much time do you spend actually in final draft? It sounds like for your movie Escape Room, considering you were shooting in three months, you must have written the entire script in about a few weeks, but what is your writing process typically? Oh, can you say… that’s where you said you brought on another writer. Got you. You wrote the outline, got you.
Will: Yeah. A writer named Noah Dorsey wrote that. But I think it’s maybe 80% [inaudible 00:09:59] and 20% actual writing. I think the research and getting ready and thinking about it is such a large part of the process. It took me a long time as a writer to realize that, because it feels very lazy when you start doing… When you start I think you wanna be writing all the time. But it’s a little bit like trying to run a marathon without prepping for it. You can really try your hardest, but how far are you gonna get in the marathon if you haven’t been getting ready?
Ashley: Yeah. Let’s talk about your development process a little bit. It sounds like you have this core group of other producers that you work with. I would imagine some of them saw this script pretty early on, but maybe just talk about this. You write a draft and then you send it out to a few trusted friends. Who are those trusted friends and what sort of feedback did you get back and then how do you address that feedback?
Will: Sure. This one was an interesting process because we actually had another version of this movie with another writer written. It was more of a straight escape room movie as opposed to a social media thing and that wasn’t working. So I went through writing two separate drafts of different versions of this movie before the social media component came on. So a lot of development, hundreds of pages of script. But once I had sort of a first act of this and an outline, it felt like the right fit, and from that point on it was very fast. So it was a pretty long initial script, like 135, 140 pages, and from there it was just a lot of calling it down with the other producers. Once we were a little bit closer, I have maybe four or five producer-writer friends that I know at different places in the industry, and so I’ll give it to them, get feedback and notes and rewrite probably four of those rewrites in the process.
Ashley: I got you. And what were some of the notes that got back on this one that you needed to change, and how do you handle notes back from people that you respect and trust, but you don’t necessarily agree with that specific note?
Will: I think whether or not you agree with the note, the note came from somewhere. So I think if you could take your ego out of it while you might not agree with the main bullet point of the note, the note is coming from somewhere important. So for me notes… I think a lot of young directors don’t wanna look like they’re in charge a lot and they don’t wanna take that type of feedback. But after making a few movies, you realize that those people are saving you from yourself later in a lot of cases. So I don’t know, I look at notes as a hugely positive thing. There was maybe a couple of things where… the one thing I think you have to watch out for is people putting themselves into the note too much.
For instance, I have a film that we’ve been working on for… a script that we’ve been working on for a long time, which is like a brother-father-son drama. And I’ve gotten notes before, like, why can’t one of them be a sister? That type of note is sometimes difficult because it can’t because that’s not the story you’re telling or it would just be a different story, that wouldn’t be my story. But for the most part, a lot of it was logic notes when you’re making a movie like this, there’s a lot of twists and turns. Have you seen the movie, did you?
Ashley: No, I have not. No, I have not actually watched it yet, unfortunately.
Will: It’s a pretty twisty turns movie, and so making sure that the twists aren’t being given away, but you’re still supporting them with enough bread crumbs that they don’t feel cheap is really important. So a lot of the notes that came back were for things like that.
Ashley: I got you. What did you have in place as you began the writing process? Obviously it’s expensive to fly everybody over to Russia. Did you have some things in place? Did you have an idea of where you could shoot this, how you could shoot this on the budget? Did you know the budget as you were writing? Maybe you can address some of those logistical things of the writing of the script. How much was in place as you’re putting this together?
Will: Well, I would actually, in that process, I would take it back to the first escape room film that we did, because in order to get that movie made… that movie was like entirely DIY. So we rented a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles. We had a rough idea of what the budget would be in the script, but it was just do everything as cheap as possible. So I flew in one of my best friends and we built the actual effects together. Basically just adding everywhere you could add value that didn’t cost money in that movie, it was important to do that. And going into this film, we had a little bit bigger of a budget, but it was still the same core group of people and the same core of people financing it.
So it’s an unusual way of making a movie. We knew we were gonna make it no matter what, so it was just a matter of putting something together that could fit within that budget. After the success of Escape Room, especially internationally, it was a lot easier obviously to get this made.
Ashley: I got you. And what was the trick with Escape Room? Did you guys sign on with a good distributor? Did you get a good festival run? Just you did it so low budget that it was easier to make your money back. What was the lesson learned from Escape Room and all this?
Will: I think the biggest lesson making that movie was just, if you keep wanting to make movies, you just have to go make a movie. And so it was about finding people that would trust, that would put trust in you and doing it as cheaply as possible. We made that movie without a distributor attached and as it was getting finished, we cut a trailer and then a producer friend of mine was able to get it to Babacar Diene at Voltage Pictures and they liked it a lot and came on to sell it, and it sold very quickly. So it was a mixture of doing it sort of the right way, and then creating something that was extremely timely. The escape room thing was just becoming a big fad and being the first movie called Escape Room, it sold quickly.
And I mean, I think for a small movie having a really killer trailer is like the most important thing, and we had a really good trailer that people bought the movie off of.
Ashley: Yeah, I got you. So then on this film, you already had this relationship with Voltage. Did Voltage come on board with No Escape as well?
Will: Yeah, they came. So they came on at the beginning of filming to do sales for the world. On our first movie they just handled international. So they were hugely supportive and still are of not only the film, but of me. It’s been great.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. So just to wrap up the interview, what advice would you have just for… and it sounds like some of it is just your do it yourself kinda attitude, but what advice do you have for screenwriters that are looking to break in and get their scripts produced?
Will: If you’re purely writing, I think you need to meet a team of people early on that can actually make your writing into a movie. Because I know a lot of writers that they just write and write and write, but the relationships are just as important. So being in Los Angeles I think has always been really important. Being here, being at least in a creative hub like Austin or like New York and then writing really cool stuff and just making it any way that you can. I know a lot of… it’s not my… I’m not the first person to say this at all, but like the tools for making films have never been so affordable and so easy to come by. So there really is no excuse to doing it, I think. And it’s hard.
So realizing that it’s hard from the outset and just pushing forward no matter what I think is the one thing that separates people that are doing it from not doing it.
Ashley: How can people see No Escape? Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Will: No Escape comes out on the 18th. It’s going to be in theaters, sort of all-over… With Corona or COVID we don’t know exactly where yet, but it will be in theaters and then on Video On Demand the same day.
Ashley: Perfect. So 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 put in the show notes.
Will: My main thing is Instagram, it’s just @willwernick. I have a film that shoots at the end of the year. I’ll be going to Toronto to shoot a film called Whitebread, produced by Roar and a company called Showdown. So that’ll be next.
Ashley: Okay. Perfect. Well, we look forward to hearing about that one hopefully pretty soon. Will, I really appreciate you coming on the podcast today and talking with me. Good luck with this film and good luck with all your future films as well.
Will: Thank you so much.
Ashley: Thank you. We’ll talk to you later.
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 writer-director Seth Larney, who just did a sci-fi film called 2067, which is about a time traveler who goes to the future to try and save a dying earth. I love these types of sci-fi films. I was excited to talk with him and hear how he put this film together. Definitely check out the trailer.
This film looks really cool with all the special effects, and then next week, we’ll talk about his journey as a filmmaker and specifically how this sci-fi epic came together. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s the show. Thank you for listening.