This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 038: An Interview With Legendary Director Brian Trenchard-Smith.
Ashley: Welcome to Epuisode 38 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at sellingyourscreenplay.com. In this week’s main segment I’m going to be interviewing the legendary filmmaker, Brian Trenchard-Smith. He’s directed nearly 50 films over the years including some real classics. He just recently directed his latest film called Drive Hard starring John Cusack so we really get into that project, how it came about and just some general tips from a director’s perspective for screenwriters so stay tuned for that.
If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review on ITunes or leaving a comment on YouTube or re-tweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking us on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread the word about the podcast so thank you everybody who has been doing that and leaving me some great notes and comments.
A couple of quick notes. 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/podcasts and just look for episode 38. Also, if you want my free guide How to Sell A Screenplay in five weeks, you can pick that up by going to 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, how to write a professional log line inquiry letter, how to find agents and managers and producers who are looking for material. Really it’s everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Again, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
So just a few quick words about what I’m working on. The main thing I’m working on right now is a rewrite of a film noir script that I wrote more than ten years ago now. I recently optioned it to a producer and he’s got some notes that I’m trying to implement. The notes are not all—I don’t necessarily think that they’re all that great so we’re kind of going back and forth on some of the specifics, but the main note he has which I think is a good one is he wants to make it more commercial and film noir, while it usually has some sort of artistic clout, they typically don’t do that well, and he’s really looking at this as a sort of low-budget genre movie so we’re trying to make it instead of sort of a film noir thriller, we’re trying to make it more like an action thriller, a low-budget action thriller so that’s what I’ve been working on and I’ll probably be working on that for the next several weeks.
So now let’s get into the main segment. As I mentioned earlier, I’m interviewing legendary film director Brian Trenchard-Smith. He really does offer some great information to screenwriters about what they can do to make their script better so here’s the interview.
Ashley: Welcome, Brian, to the Selling Your screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show.
Brian: Thank you for having me.
Ashley: So, to start out, I wonder if you can give us a quick recap of how you got started as a writer and director?
Brian: I initially (inaudible 03:23.9) back in the days of 16 mm. And getting it on the air. It was very exciting, and I moved from that to making promos for fashion online for Australia. So I started to make some promos that emphasized sex and violence and they seemed to draw an audience. And they were quite successful. So as a result a rival network stole me, and I started making promos for four stations instead of just one, and that led to get me going to England to work for an American company that made most of the trailers for European movies. I ended up making trailers for Hammer Horrors. If you look at my trailers from hell up, you’ll see one of my trailers which I narrate for the Horror of Frankenstein. I made about 25 trailers for this particular company including Sergio Neoni’s Once Upon A Time In The West trailer, and after a few years of that, the Australians called me and said we’ll fly you back if you’ll run the network promotions again. I said well only if you let me make programs so that was my transition from the publicity/promotion side of the business to production, a rather unconventional lateral move. And so I was given easy questions to direct small documentaries and then I started revising television specials. My choice one was a dramatized documentary about Australians who won Victoria Crosses, the highest award for gallantry in the Commonwealth Army in Vietnam. So that got some attention, and then I went independent and started making my own TV specials. The first one was called The Stunt Man which can actually be found on the Stunt Walk DVD. They are available I suppose for people with multiregional DVD’s. Anyway, that won an award for the best documentary at the film festival, and now I have a calling card. So I continued to make these TV specials so I used the calling card when I went to Hong Kong with a script which eventually became The Man From Hong Kong. I managed to get Raymond Chow for the lead producer to offer to back half of it. Then I went to colleagues of mine in Australia, and the Australia Development Corporation. They had just started to put money into films for the other half. And five hundred thousand dollars later, we had a movie that was sold to Twentieth Century Fox. It broke box office records at the London Pavilion in the UK. I guess I was up and away from there.
Ashley: One point of clarification, you were talking about these promos that you were making. When you say you were making these promos, are you writing, directing and editing them? Is that where you were getting the technical chops to be a director?
Brian: Yes, to a degree. I mean, I had already edited news, and I often think that if you can edit news, you can edit anything. I had always been fascinated by trailers growing up as a kid, and so I would screen the movie, keep off sections, cut them together and transfer them to refine the editing slightly. I have written a commentary track to top and tailor it and design title cards that would be superimposed. You see there is a range of technical experience there. In those days in Australia we kind of taught ourselves. So I had the basics, and then once I was given the opportunity to make television programs of non-drama programs, I honed my skills with what angles you should present certain things from, and my first true drama was The Man From Hong Kong which was kind of a James Bond movie which came out in 1995. My learning was on the job, and I transitioned from selecting scenes for jobs and other people’s films to actually designing my own shots. I tend to have a very strong input into the editing of my films and choice of music and the balance of the sound mix. But back in those days the Australian film industry was just like the renaissance that came into being and we kind of taught ourselves.
Ashley: Let’s talk about your most recent movie Drive Hard starring Thomas Jayne and John Cusack. First maybe you can tell us just sort of what was the genesis of that project? How did you find it? How did you get involved with it?
Brian: Well, I’d worked for the producer on a previous film with Jayne called Absolute Perception with basically a Lifetime movie but made in Australia. I live in America but I frequently go back to Australia to make films. And he offered me this action picture which was a vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme. Then Jean-Claude Van Damme dropped out and there was, we were told, a window of opportunity or availability of John Cusack who was then going to go on to do a (inaudible 0:12:25.7) movie and if I could rework the script for Australia—it was an American script–, and retool it for Jean’s particular skills and material that he wasn’t interested in getting, that made the difference between Jean-Claude Van Damme and John Cusack though they do have some similarity in their initials, but that’s as far as it goes. So I worked with John briefly at his house and came up with a script that was sort of more or less what he felt he could play and we cast Jonathan Jayne and he very quickly found the two of them had great comedic chemistry, and I pushed the script more toward comedy but still had lots of action scenes. As far as the writing discipline is concerned, this was a constantly evolving script because I encouraged them to bring their experience and skill to improvisation. And so there are a couple of scenes where there was a good deal of improvisation. I like to give actors freedom to move and to perhaps use their understanding of character to throw in some appropriate material. I don’t suppose you have seen the film have you?
Ashley: I did. Actually they sent me a link and I did. I just watched it a couple of nights ago so I’ve seen it.
Brian: You seemed to have survived the experience.
Ashley: It was a thoroughly entertaining film.
Brian: It’s a fun film; it’s not fast and furious. It is a character-based action comedy.
Ashley: I’m curious. You said you had to rewrite the script to accommodate John Cusack vs. Jean-Claude Van Damme. I certainly understand that. Why did you rewrite it to fit into Australia? Was that purely a budgetary thing they could shoot it much cheaper in Australia and get the same film?
Brian: Well, certainly the financing allowing the Australian tax breaks was the attraction but also from a cultural standpoint, Australia is quite different from the US. In the original script the two guys were heading for Canada. Well, Australia, you head for the nearest boat if you want to get off the Island and the way the police works etc. Also John wanted the villains to be a corrupt bank and that allowed him to get a little bit of his personal flaws into the film. There were a lot of changes to be made. Originally the villains were kind of (inaudible 0:16:01.9) strangling people in their boardroom for not delivering the goods—things like that. It was better to make the villains have some basis in reality such as the gangsters. And also I had to tailor the action for what he could do because one of the restrictions for a performer was I couldn’t actually damage any of the vehicles.
Ashley: I’m curious. As a director you’ve done so many movies, what attracts you to a film like this? I’m curious how something like that—I mean, you must get a lot of scripts come across your desk, and why do you select the ones that you select?
Brian: It’s very simple. I select the ones that are funded. Sure, I have a couple of dream projects that I would like to do. I have written a revision of Richard III, a true story of Richard III and he did not murder the princes in the tower, did not poison his wife to marry his niece, did not do a whole lot of things that Shakespeare made very entertaining, hence, a dutiful propagandist for the Tudor regime. So if someone would just give me 15 million dollars, I would make a terrific film out of that plot. I experienced some difficulty in getting the necessary enthusiasm because most anybody would say well, I’d have most of the time the good Richard. The good Richard just happens to be the historic truth. I have five projects currently chasing money that I am attached to. As a director and in one case an executive producer, I say well, may the best man win. I will make any film that’s funded provided I can then adjust scripts to my sensibility or completely rewrite it as may be the case on my instincts. They get the money based on the poster and the concept, I would certainly provide the script or let’s say, make the scripts better that we would currently use. I do need to mold the material in some way to make it my own. I’ll take on anything with the possible exception—there are levels beneath which I will not slip.
Ashley: So let’s talk about getting major stars in an independent film like this. How did you get John Cusack attached?
Brian: He had a window of availability. We could meet his price. He just wanted the scripts to be smarter and suit his particular screen persona and if we could do that in the narrow window of time, then we worked. We spent about three weeks getting the scripts to get that attraction and also then incorporated Thomas Jayne’s input in the last week when he came on board. I had two options by then three weeks later, I had prepped the movie, and they flew in and we got John Cusack out basically four days before his window closed.
Ashley: I wonder if you can give us some tips—you know, as I said, this is a screenwriting podcast—I wonder if you can give screenwriters some tips kind of from the director’s perspective. Are there some things that directors love to see in a script? Maybe there are some practical tips that someone as seasoned as yourself–you know, that are second nature to you, but you see that screenwriters don’t necessarily understand them. I’d be curious to hear kind of your thoughts on scripts from someone who’s directed a lot of movies.
Brian: One thing to avoid is start hitting the directed camera angle. Find the location and have (inaudible 0:20:40.5) visually. Obviously some visual notes sometimes are far helpful in terms of setting a scene as concisely as possible evocatively and get some kind of general picture of the locale, the location, therefore is helpful to understand the scene that follows and then get on with it. Think in terms of moving the story along as fast as possible as one would have a short attention span. Try and also write characters that stars will want to play. If you want a film financed, you’ve got to have a star. If you want a star, you’ve got to have a role that he wants to play and dialog that he wants to say so just make sure that you are constructing the characters and you give them meat a star would want to put his teeth into; that’s another thing, but just try to write as tersely precisely as possible so that it’s a fast read so that before the star reads it, the agent or manager will read it as they have tons of scripts crossing people’s desks. If it doesn’t take their interest within ten pages (inaudible 0:22:30.6) and finally writing means rewriting. When you feel very proud of yourself for having gotten to the end of the first draft, by all means show it to a friend or a colleague, but don’t think okay, I’ve written the script; I’m sending it up.
Ashley: How can people watch Drive Hard? What’s the best way for them to get it?
Brian: Drive Hard started at BAP yesterday so it’s on demand and will continue for up to six months and then on October 4 it will be in a number of theaters across America and also on ITunes so you have a choice.
Ashley: Perfect. I’ve found BMX Bandits which was actually Nicole Kidman’s first movie. I found that on Netflix and was watching it last night. I wonder when is something like The Man From Hong Kong going to be on Netflix?
Brian: I don’t know. I don’t control the rights though I own half the rights. Anyway, the best way to see The Man From Hong Kong is to buy the DVD.
Ashley: What’s the best way for people to keep in contact with you? Do you blog or are you on Twitter?
Brian: Training From Hell is a cinema history site run by Jay Van Table (inaudible 0:25:31.7) There is a way to reply to (inaudible 0:25:56.7)
Ashley: Perfect. I’ll put a link to that in the show notes so people can find that and click directly over. Brian, you’ve been very generous with your time. I really appreciate this. This has been a very informative interview. It was great talking with you.
Brian: Well, thank you very much. Anyway, thank you. I appreciate it.
Ashley: Thank you.
Ashley: Just a quick update on the class I’m going to be teaching this Saturday, September 27 at 10:00 AM Pacific Time. The class is called “Choosing a Marketable Concept for Your Screenplay.” It’s the first class in a one-year series that I’m going to be running and covering the entire screenwriting process from choosing a concept to actually writing a script and then to actually marketing the screenplay. There are still two spots left as I’m recording this which is actually a week early than it gets published, but there are still two spots left for the one-year intensive screenwriting workshop that I’ll be running. This class is the first part of that. If you want to just take this class, that’s totally fine. There are definitely some more spots if you just want to take this one class. Again, that class is going to be on Saturday, September 27. If you’re listening to this after the class takes place, no problem. I record the classes. I put them in the Selling Your Screenplay select library so you can catch up on those and hopefully take some of the other classes that I will be offering throughout the next year. If you want to learn more about this, please go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/classes. Again, that’s Saturday, September 27 at 10:00 AM Pacific Time, and again, this class is the first part of the Selling Your Screenplay select gold one-year intensive screenwriting workshop that I’m running where I really will be helping screenwriters through the entire process of writing, developing a script, writing a script, and then ultimately marketing and hopefully selling that script so check that out if you would like to learn more. That’s sellingyourscreenplay.com/gold.
In the next episode of Selling Your Screenplay podcast, I’m going to be interviewing Melanie Orem. She’s the head of the screenwriting department at the New York Film Academy as well as being an accomplished writer and producer. We’ll be talking a bit about short films and how screenwriters can start to build a nice career by writing shorts. She’s got a lot of practical information for screenwriters who are doing shorts. She helps all of her students through the production of their shorts so she really knows a lot about how to write a good short and then how to actually get it to festivals and that kind of thing. So if you’re looking to write and potentially produce a short, definitely check out next weeks’ episode.
I wanted to mix things up a little bit and just have a quick screenwriting lesson. On HBO they’re starting to get some of the Oscar-winning films from last year, Twelve Years a Slave. I just watched that on HBO Go, and last night I just watched Dallas Buyer’s Club. I mean, there are a lot of great screenwriting lessons you can learn from both of these movies. But I just wanted to touch on one thing that really impressed me about Dallas Buyer’s Club, and the screenwriting—again, there are a ton of lessons that you can learn, but the one thing that really stuck out to me is the actual concept is really, really rock solid. All the things that a good screenplay needs you can see in the concept and specifically what I’m talking about is you have a life and death situation. You’ve got big drama. This guy’s literally going to die in 30 days. You have a really developed interesting character, and that character arc—the actual change of the character is really what the story is about. I mean, there is logistics of the story of this guy creating a Dallas buyer’s club for the AIDS medication if you haven’t seen the film. That’s like part of the story, but the thing that moves the story forward is this guy’s transformation and this guy’s character arc. And I can tell you when I’m coming up with ideas and I’m coming up with log lines, it’s not always that clear. Like I can see in just the concept, if someone pitched this story to me, It would be really clear to me that this is a really solid idea for a screenplay because you have a really gut-wrenching story that you’re going to be able to get a lot of drama out of and you have a very clear character arc for this character. You know, it would have been easy for the writers to make this guy like a really nice guy from the beginning so he doesn’t have an arc, but the concept and the way they conceived it, this really, really made this script work. Anyway, just a quick screenwriting lesson. I thought it might be interesting just to talk about that for a minute. If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it. It’s a really good film too just on so many different levels. It works—all the stuff I just said, the concept. It’s very, very heartwarming; it’s got some real good dramatic beats, some great scenes and obviously great acting, you know, Matthew Micotti winning the Oscar for best actor. So definitely check it out. As I said, as I’m recording this it’s on HBO Go now. So have a look if you have HBO. I’m sure it will end up on Netflix eventually. But if you want to check it out, check out HBO Go.
Anyway, that’s our show. Thank you for listening.