This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 048: An Interview With Writer / Director (and actor) of The Mule, Angus Sampson.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode 48 of the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger, at sellingyourscreenpla6y.com. In this episode’s main segment I’m interviewing Angus Sampson. Angus is an actor, writer, director who just completed an independent film called The Mule. We get into some real details of how this film came together and we talk about how he was able to parlay a successful acting career into a writing and directing career. So much of what he talks about can be used by anyone to improve their career even if you’re not an actor so stay tuned for that.
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Thank you to Stanford Crane who left me a nice comment on episode 46. I’m actually close to having 500 subscribers to my YouTube channel so if you use YouTube a lot, consider subscribing to the channel and it should help me push past that 500 mark. Thank you, guys, for that.
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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 then just look for episode 48.
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Just a quick few words about what I’m working on, this is sort of a slow time of year. Things in Hollywood seem to have really slowed down before the holidays until after the holidays so there’s really not a lot going on for me right now. I did hear from the producer who has my baseball comedy option. He’s going to re-option the script for another six months. He has to pay a few bucks for this so it’s a good sign that he is serious. He’s a super nice guy so I really hope we can get this project going. I think he’ll do a good job with it, but of course, we’ll see.
Today, I’m talking with actor/writer/director Angus Sampson. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome, Angus, to the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show.
Angus: Thanks, Ashley. Thanks for having us on.
Ashley: So, to start out, I wonder if you can just give us a quick overview of your career, kind of how you got into the entertainment industry and eventually got to directing and writing the Mule.
Angus: When I left school I was pursuing a “career” in Rugley Union and I guess pursuing is not an apt description nor is career. I had spent most of my life avoiding responsibility. I started doing some improve and what have you in Australia which then led to being asked to be on a music program in which I was a mute and I wore a balaclava but it was a live music program for three hours on a Saturday morning. I got exposed to all manner of things in front of the camera without actually having to expose myself. I didn’t have to speak; I didn’t have to show my face. It was like an incredible tour of the machinations of live television. On that show I met a gentleman by the name of Lee Winnell who was also another teenager who had been given a job on this live youth music program which featured film reviews, which featured bands performing, which featured interviews with even from Jose Ramos Holter through to James Leonard. We ended up meeting and chatting with all these different people from all walks of life. It was almost like doing work experience and Lee and I befriended one another as we did most of the presenters on the show and we ended up living together. I guess Lee’s curiosity around feature films came around him missing out on a role in an Alex Proyas film called Garage Days and so he thought you know what, I’m actually going to write myself a role. I’m sick of missing out on films. That for me was in the time that I started writing for television in Australia, and I guess he kind of inspired and showed me—not kind of—but was absolutely able to say that a career in writing and the arts is absolutely possible. I certainly don’t have the focus to do any long form tomes or anything but from I guess pursuing a career in the arts, I’ve been lucky enough to work with such screenwriters in a performing capacity on Where The Wild Things Are and George Miller in the new Mad Max and most recently with Lee Winnell himself on a feature film that we’ve written called The Mule. Curiously I’ve never written a feature film before and Lee had never, ever collaborated with somebody before on the level that we wrote together. Yes, he had created a film entitled Saw and Insidious with James Warren and they have writing credits together on that, Lee was actually doing the predominant writing whereas on The Mule, we would sort of write scenes for one another or go off and write certain characters acts but certainly working with him was the greatest person I ever had where I’d be spending hours rewriting one scene, he would have written six or seven scenes to my half. I guess I found myself actually being drawn to this area after having acted in a lot of feature films and television in Australia and abroad, then starting to direct commercials and having written for television, I thought what else is the most attractive thing to me and that was meeting and hearing and listening to these wonderful screenwriters who are I guess God to the director’s Jesus.
Ashley: Let me just back up a little bit. You mentioned you started acting on this kid show and then at some point you transitioned to TV; take me through that to writing television. Take me through that transition because I know there are definitely a lot of people who want to break into TV writing. How did you make that transition? What was that like? How did you kind of get that break as a TV writer?
Angus: The way I got my first ever gig writing television was actually off the back of performing so I guess maybe that’s what they do is that you’re sort of a writer/performer. I certainly wasn’t hired to write the television show that I ended up first writing on. I was actually hired as an actor on the show. And they had writing rooms and you’re in there receiving these scripts and ideas and what have you and I guess it was a safe enough environment to be able to proffer up alternatives, both there and then on the day and also ideas you have in the plotting room and what have you. I was fortunate enough to have a lady who the show was written around by the name of Mary Custis who was very generously invested in me I guess professionally and personally and encouraged me to pick up the pen and to write more and to actually say that Angus is going to write for his character just as Ian Brennan might be a co-creator or Greg Glee might write for some specific character on that. That’s how it started out. Yes, I had had experience writing sketches and skits on television on the kids’ kind of music show but as far as sort of doing adult, it came off the back of me being a performer.
Ashley: Describe this show. You were a series regular on this show and so you would just come up with it started with just like a joke here, a joke there and after time you were able to—
Angus: Did you ever see that show—I’m pretty certain they did it in America—there was a British program originally called The Kumars at Number 42 and the premise of it was it was an Indian family in a suburb in London or was it South London, and the guests would come to their house and they’d meet them in their kitchen and rather than having the traditional sort of chat-sure way that the host would be at a desk and the guest sits on the couch, they would just drop into the Kumars’ house at #42 and the family would sit on the couch instead of him and ask him leading questions which there was a father, there was a mother in theory that would kind of host the elderly son who was still living at home who should have been out of home by that stage and the wisecracking grandmother who said very inappropriate almost very generational racist things to their guest. In theory you could almost guess what the characters were going to say. So the way that show worked was the company that I worked for, one of the merger networks in Australia, network seven, they lost the franchise of that show and so in Australia, the largest population in Australia, the largest population of Greeks outside of Athens—and this includes the second largest city in Greece, Thessaloniki—the second largest population of Greeks in the world is Melbourne in Australia. And so they’d take this ethnic minority, the Indians in London, the Greeks in Melbourne and this show was called Greeks on the Roof. And in theory we lived in a housing commission flat. There was myself, my mother, the host who was my cousin and her parents and so the guests would come and visit our housing commission apartment and we would do the show on the roof. We had people on the show like Jerry Springer or Heidi Fleiss and you would get their biographies, you’d get what they’re in the country for. You’d have an opportunity to speak with their manager or even them in the lead up to their recordings. So on a Friday night he would get to have a chat with [not understood 0:15:11.7 and you do it as yourself, as Ashley or as Angus. You’d say, it says in your biography that you know how to do an Irish tap dance? Where did you learn that and you’d read their biography and you’d get ideas as to how that may inform your character. I played a fairly dimwitted cousin who was unemployed but who was always on the make around the housing commission flats. So anything in the biography that Jerry Springer talks about, how he got into trouble for visiting call girls by paying with checks that bounced. What scenario might my character have done that in or would he recognize and relate to Jerry over. While it wasn’t scripted for our guests, you could almost anticipate or almost cajole them or coerce them into a little area where you kind of knew what their answer was going to be. And so we had to set up questions; we had to write and reinforce some character of the four people sitting on the couch, almost like reading over the host’s shoulder if you were trying to read a book in a café and someone’s reading the book over your shoulder. That was kind of the premise that that lady was trying to interview the guests who played a character named Effie and her family wouldn’t let her do it in peace and they kept butting in in theory so it came about that I met a gentleman on that show, a very good Australian writer by the name of Chris Merkshire and Chris introduced me to a writing colleague of his by the name of Jamie Brown and we found that it was quite an interesting writing room because we were meant to be writing from the perspective of first generation Australians but no one in the writing room was that. They were all very Anglican and second or third-generation Australians so there was a sort of a shift in the writing room as the series evolved and I guess the opportunities were there for the diligent writer amongst us. And what ended up happening was that we ended up almost writing longer hours—dare I say spending more time crafting acts and spending more time on it rather than just sort of proffering up kind of witty one-liners. That was certainly something that I always tried to do was to focus on the character of the characters rather than the double entendres or trying to say something as a joke. I always felt that that was a lot easier to write and felt a lot more honest and familiar for the Orient. So that’s what ended up happening. Basically we ended up just putting my hand up and I guess by the boss’ doing, they kept putting my lines and my scenarios and my pieces in. They’d almost like be little chapters kind of thing where you could write four or five responses based on what the guest would say and then we’d film it live in front of an audience. It had a great sense of risk there.
Ashley: I can see how that would be very fertile ground for actors like yourself who are willing to do the work and actually write stuff how it would be very receptive. I read a quick blurb about your bio that you started to direct commercials, and I think maybe you could tell us. So you have done some acting, and I think that’s a great story how you transitioned from acting to writing. Maybe you can tell us how you transitioned into directing and I think that will set us up perfectly for then talking about The Mule in detail. So how did you go from then being an actor and now a writer to also directing?
Angus: I think any one of us who has put their hands up to act in something for someone, you get a real sense of just how many forces there are at play in trying to interpret a screenwriter’s words and intent. I don’t think you can ever be perfectly in sync despite having great working relationships. I look at it as a vantage point. Unless you’re standing in exactly the same spot with exactly the same height with exactly the same experiences behind you, you’re not going to see the same thing and so I think you got to the stage where I had actually a lot of things and I found myself sort of always doing this kind of uninspiring response answering in an uninspiring way when people would say what have you got coming up next? And you’d say Double Trouble or something. And they’d be like all right. What’s that like? It’s like I’m okay but it’s, yeah. Never would you ever say I’m terrible in it but the film’s good. That didn’t seem to happen and I guess if you’re lucky enough to work with dynamic individuals and diligent individuals who have intellect in taste and most importantly, they are diligent individuals, having been a voice around solving problems, then you are actually inspired to try your hand at that. You are motivated. If it’s a poor experience, you go, you know what, I could do better than this. Surely I could do this. If you’re on set enough you start to see why things are done the way they are and you start to see where the mistakes are made. Eventually as an actor one of the joys of being an actor is you are the esthetic representation of something, should it resonate with an audience. Actually Front and Center is an imitation game. We don’t see the writer or we don’t see the gaffer or the best boy but the flip side of this is when it doesn’t resonate with an audience for whatever reason or reasons, they are also representative of that as what people might call a flop or what have you. But you very quickly learn unless you’re one of the greats, you very quickly learn how little responsibility ultimately you have beyond offering up some versions of events. Rarely do you sit in an edit suite or almost never, I mean, it’s unheard of unless you have the ability to hire and fire the director and someone onto Santa Claus II or Fred Claus II but really you just end up being in this position where you watch and edit and you think all right, they used that take did they? I’m sure there was something else I had done. Ultimately you realize that you kind of are making contributions to something and you’re responsible as much as [not understood], the David Attleboro documentary, they cut in between their various focal lengths and lens sizes on these two animals with a narration some strings and timpani drums, and it’s edge-of-the-seat stuff. The Mir cats are looking around to provide the curious bystanders. It’s like you know what, it could be a Mir cat. I mean, Jean Claude Van Damme in [not understood 0:25:30.1] Could be a Mir cat, that would be a good film. But you know what, I actually want to if you’re curious enough, you act on your curiosities and I think that’s what ended up happening. In short, it wasn’t like someone tapped me on the shoulder and said you know what, Angus, we’ve been watching you from the director’s booth up there, the corporate box. We’d like to give you the key. You’re invited into the bathroom. It wasn’t that at all. I had just spent five months working as a suit performer on a feature film entitled Where the Wild Things Are with a wonderful collective of storytellers who happen to find themselves as filmmakers, a collective of regular collaborators of the director Spike Jones who was a drummer in a punk band called the Screamers, it was his costume designer. This was a friend of theirs. They said hey, can you find some costumes for this breeders film clip. Graffiti artist Sunny Jersimovich, he was a graffiti artist and they’re like yeah, do you want to draw some concept art for some wild things, these characters like three-day versions and they would go up and say how about this? How about that and ultimately they were just trying to tell stories and help each other tell interesting stories after spending five months, lead them around them, meeting people like Dave Eggers and Spike and be invited to have conversations with [not understood 0:27:48.1] two wonderful cinematographers, you end up wanting to taste this; I want to know what it’s like to have that responsibility, to be that curious, but ultimately to act on that curiosity, to jump in and say I’m going to do this. There are people whom I have admired and worked with over the years and I’m going to approach them. I’m going to make it as easy as possible for them to say yes to contributing to my film.
Ashley: Now we’re literally segueing into The Mule. Correct about how you got to directing?
Angus: Well, no. Curiously I went through a period where I finished this television program as a performer, and I was like what do I do now? I’ve never had Social Security benefits. I came very close to signing up for some, and I got a job in a bar and I said how can I write some things and I ended up signing up for copywriting school in Australia. It’s called a ward school and all you have to do is pay a submission fee but you have to write a commercial, an example commercial like here’s a sample of my work, and I wrote a commercial,. A fictitious one I guess with no concept of how long it should be, with no concept or consideration of budget or corporate branding or positioning. I wrote an advertisement for the fast food chain McDonald’s. And you didn’t know that it was a McDonald’s commercial and you certainly wouldn’t have guessed it was a McDonald’s commercial because the commercial was the Last Supper with Jesus and his twelve disciples and it was around the time—do you remember that television program Weakest Link. Do you remember that show?
Angus: Weakest Link. And I think what is it I’m going to write about? I’m writing a rotten ad. I mean, when someone writes an advertisement, it’s like, you know, Thanks to Colgate, my teeth have never been whiter. That’s an ad so I ended up writing this fictitious commercial in the hope that I would get into this copywriting school. The commercial I wrote was The Last Supper and Jesus was chatting to his disciples and saying one of you betrays me. And they’re like we don’t know who. He’s like you need to look inside yourselves. They’re like it’s no use, we can’t. Please, just tell us who is it? And Jesus sort of waves his hands and some music started. He’s like no, no. You have to seek inside yourself, there you’ll find the answer and he waves his hand and some music plays and all the disciples sort of scribble something down in front of them around this weakest link, then it would cut to the end of the table after Jesus said ye have sought, what did you find? And you go down the table and find the disciples will all vote for Judas as the weakest link or as the betrayer, and when it got to Judas, he’d flip over Stephanie. The weakest link vote had been cast and Judas stands up. His robes fall off to reveal himself as the betrayer that he was and is and turns out to be Colonel Sanders and exeunt the last supper to go off and start Kentucky Fried Chicken. That was the submission I guess that I wrote up.
Ashley: And this was just a script, though. You didn’t shoot this or direct it. You just submitted the screenplay; it was just a commercial.
Angus: Yes. And it was a wonderful thing to go and do at ward school and copywriting school and I’ll tell you why, because you go in there every Monday for maybe eight to ten weeks and sit down there and say okay, this week here’s the brief. It’s a billboard; it’s an outdoor billboard and it’s an advertisement for Wilshire Stay Sharp Knives. It’s almost like you’re on scouts or something and you try to get to the next stage to survive in the bush or what have you. But you’re so hungry and eager to give me some structure; give me some restrictions. Give me a brief; it’s like that cross line. Let me dance for you and it’s great going to copywriter’s school because there are so many egos in there who all think that what they’re writing—and myself included—has never been conceived of before, never even thought of before and it’s a really invigorating place, copywriting school because they say no, it has to be short; it has to be sharp. It has to be quick. You have to turn it around and it has to have what they call an SMP (single-minded proposition) and so for Wilshire Stay Sharp Knives, for example, one brief that I had was that it needed to be on an outdoor billboard which could be anywhere and the single-minded proposition was it’s a knife that stays sharp no matter how many times you take it out and put it back in it’s self-sharpening. I’m sure it was more articulate than that. So they would say okay your time starts now and they would encourage you on a big-sized piece of paper or notepad would be to write almost like 64 chess-squared pieces, not that many but 48 or whatever and they would just say draw eight lines down and eight lines across and in each of those squares write a different idea. Keep going until you fill them all. If it’s terrible, move to the next square. Keep going. Go down to the next row; keep moving to the left. What can it be? You’re in there doing this classwork maybe two or three hours and then you’ve got a week at home to come back and hand it in. What I ended up at that point doing was that there were outdoor billboards but how can I be clever? How can I extend that outdoor idea? Like what if the billboard was on the side of a bus? Again, you don’t care for health and safety regulations. You’re just someone trying to show off your ingenuity and imagination because, of course, you know, getting paid. In fact, you’re paying them to do this. What I ended up going with what I thought was the best option was to have a knife handle and I guess the bit of the knife going into one of those self-sharpening containers—I don’t know when you put a sharp knife, you used to be able to slide it into something and it would sharpen it so in theory when the bus would accelerate, the knife would slide back and when the bus would brake, it would slide back into the self-sharpening container. I guess underneath there’d be some copy saying stay sharp forever or whatever you want to write. So there were very distinct boundaries, very distinct briefs and there was very distinct structure to it. The biggest challenge for any writer regardless of their experience, in my experience is if I were to say to you actually right now, hey, can you write me a story? You can choose whatever you want it to be. Suddenly it’s easier for you if I say it has to be a story about a spider. You’re going great. Okay. And I say to you it has to be a story about a spider and it’s got to be 200 words long. It can’t be 199; it can’t be 203. It’s got to be 200 words long. You’re like that’s a strange brief. And outside of that the first sentence has to match the last sentence and all you’re doing is the match that’s inside your head or the gas that’s inside your head, you put in these little matches through and hoping that one of those flames alights and flickers and burns for you to complete these 200 words on a spider and the sentence is the same at the start and at the end. That’s the greatest gift I figure as a writer is if you were able to provide that structure yourself, then I think you’re much more a successful writer and probably a more productive writer than most who are like all I need to do is write a page or I have to write 5000 words today. There is no one way to write and certainly for me having the exposure to being a copywriter for a while and to writing sketch stuff for television and then for longer form television, I found it a vastly different experience in each of the areas and fundamentally where I ended up just writing my first featured film alongside Lee Winnell and Jamie Brown, you saw the three levels of experience on our writing team. We had a script that Jamie Brown had written about a gentleman who was coerced into muling drugs from Thailand on an end-of-season football trip and he is arrested upon his return due to his suspicious behavior at the airport by federal police and they say to him well, we’re obliged to inform you we can’t actually x-ray you without your permission. We can’t inspect you without your permission; that is your right and so this drug mule says well, I don’t give you permission. He’s out of his depth and afraid. Then he’s informed by his government-appointed attorney that the police are only allowed to detain him without any evidence for seven days. So he decides I’m not going to be on the toilet for seven days; they’ll have nothing on me. They can’t prove I’ve got anything because they can’t look inside me. What he doesn’t know is that you can’t stop your digestive system just like your heartbeat. And so what an incredible premise! You have lethal narcotics inside somebody who is under 24/7 observation. When they come out—not if—you’ll go straight to jail. You’ve got someone trying to devise natural bodily functions in order to stay alive and in doing so expose himself to certain death if and when one of the packages perforates. So we optioned that script to Jamie Leonard.
Ashley: Just to back up for a quick second, where did Jamie find that idea? Was it based on a true story he saw in a magazine or newspaper? Where did that sort of idea originate from?
Angus: The original story for The Mule was suggested to Jamie by a friend of his. He had found a clipping in a newspaper article and he said hey, this is a fairly perverse story and my friend, Jamie, might like it. It was on page 24 and it might have been a one-inch column, 12 lines. A man in Iowa is being detained. The longer he didn’t go to the bathroom the more media coverage he started to get and his story moved from page 24 to 21 and after three days it was 20. And after five days, the guy didn’t end up going to the toilet in theory; he would re-ingest them somehow for 22 days. He’d wake up and they’d have slipped out and he’d push them back in. And so he’d get to like okay I’ve got one day to go and either the magistrate would clear due to circumstantial evidence, however circumstantial is pretty strong with a guy wanting to go to the toilet so they would keep extending his detention. That was a futile attempt. If you tell anybody that premise, given that every man, woman, child, and animal goes to the bathroom moves their bowels, that could really resonate with a lot of people. And it should resonate with a lot of people; we just need to find a way of making a suspenseful film because you toilet paper the premises, that’s like [not understood [0:44:11.4] but for us we have tried to put it in the area of Fargo, a suburban pocket of masculinity, trying to outsmart other people just on whims with all thinking they’re smarter than everybody else in the room all trying to outmaneuver one another, all in it for themselves. Once Lee and I started writing—because we optioned Jamie’s script; we paid him to do a draft with our notes—instead of 2003, we’d like to set it in a time where there wasn’t mobile phones. I would like to set it in a time when the police had never ever experienced a drug mule refusing to go to the toilet so it wasn’t contemplated in law. When was that? And we ended up that Jamie’s great suggestion was why don’t we set it in 1979 or 1982. I liked 1982. That was the year I got my first bus pass. So Jamie said what about 1983; that is when Australia sailed against America in the 1983 America’s cup yacht race and it was the best of seven match racing and it takes place in Rhode Island, Newport, Rhode Island, and we found it was the longest winning streak in the history of the sport in the world. The New York Yacht Club, the Americans held the cup for 132 years continuously. In 1983 in the best of seven races, the Americans were winning 1-0, 2-0, then 2-1, then 3-1; they needed just one more and the Australians unbeknownst to the Americans had a hidden design on the keel of the boat; they were hiding the design of it. They were losing, even though they were down by two races; they never ever revealed the design. So they’d travel the boat around and it had a skirt around it. What it ended up being—and it was driving the Americans nuts. They would send scuba divers down there to have a look. What it ended up being was a winged keel which helped with the drag and going upwind and what have you, but they had put wings on the keel instead of just being your vertical. They added these horizontal skirts and, sure enough, Australia came back and won the series 4-3; they won the last three races. We thought this was a fantastic plot for our story. What if I said what we had discussed before, instead of saying 200 words we’re like what if this story takes place over the Americus Cup period? What about the Australians and the Americans, what about the Americans are the police in our story? So whenever the Americans would have a win, the police get closer to busting their man. And it’s not overt; you probably wouldn’t even know that if I didn’t point that out and it wasn’t designed to be that way. But it was wonderfully liberating, writing and structuring the plot around, having this seven-point structure of the plot saying with the police getting close to getting their man, the underdog in the end comes back and does he triumph? I guess people will have to see the film.
Ashley: Let’s talk about the actual writing process of this. So Jamie’s done a couple passes at this and then you and Lee decide you’re going to take over the writing of it. What does that look like? Are you rewriting pages, giving them to Lee, he is giving you notes, swapping pages?
Angus: What was happening was Jamie wrote two drafts or two passes on a draft and we would say we’d like to have a character where there is a masculine friend coercing him into drugs. I don’t know that we made this character blah, blah, blah. Jamie, to his credit, turned out two passes really quickly and we were like okay, well, we want to keep making some more changes. Jamie’s like well, I’ve got to go and earn a living. I need to go write other writing gigs and this is kind of like mate’s rates sort of thing. And so Lee and I ended up just sort of our intention was not to rewrite it by any stretch of the imagination; it was just to tweak a sentence. Why don’t we go through this line by line and just sentence by sentence and just see what happens? What ended up happening was it was like you watch a movie and you’re stopping at a diner on the way home with your mate. You’re almost talking over the top of one another, deciphering and speculating your intentions and meanings and exciting parts of the film and underwhelming parts. And sort of what ended up happening was—if you spoke to Lee about it—there’s a very social experience. It was a very sociable run. If you talk to Lee, he’s written over ten or eleven or twelve feature films that are all deemed commercially successful and some blatantly commercially successful or most—he says it was actually a really fun part rather than being off in this sort of isolated by himself with the lights out slogging away at the keyboard, giving the latest pass to somebody and sort of just having kind of callous notes come back, impersonal notes come back to their eyes. So both he and I worked as performers, as actors so it was great to just put the scene on its feet. That was something that we really certainly did in this film. It was like we acted it up for one another. We had almost like charades in some instances and so you’d affect your voice or you’d say oh no, what about if he says this? What about if she walks in and she’s carrying a burned shoe that she’s found. It’s almost like someone had a Dictaphone but it was a great way of filtering material from the outset. You didn’t have to write a whole page or two or three and then look back and read and go you know what, this is really trite. You knew you wouldn’t put it down on the page unless both of us were enjoying the rich dialog which we were wanting to write or the twists and turns that we were trying to impress one another with. And for the most part, all the twists and turns in The Mule, they’re Lee’s. He’s an incredibly knowledgeable cinophile and script writing is—I don’t think I ever had a better lesson—you know, for me, I’d be spending 90 minutes writing an exchange with two what people would deem support characters or satellite characters. Casting agents might call them 50-worders. They might just come in for a day and I would sweat and labor. Now I’m not Leonard Cohen. I’m just inexperienced and I don’t know how to not sweat the small stuff. Lee, on the other hand, was like we need to kill somebody, 37 pages and we have to kill somebody. Somebody has to go. The confidence that he has in writing, the confidence that he has in understanding film structure, and owning and having more information about our script or about our role, about our characters than anyone else gives you that permission to know she wouldn’t say that. No, she wouldn’t do that. Absolutely not! He doesn’t speak German and that was the great thing that David Michaud, the director of Animal Kingdom, said once when asked about his experience in working with actors who had done many more films. He said all you have to do is just research and know more about your script than anybody else. That’s all you have to do. I guess for us another thing we did actually was organize a read-through of the script before we’d finish writing. We were like, you know what, let’s organize a read-through for the sixth of June. You’re like, yeah, but that’s eight days away. We are all out to page 52. You know, what else is going to make us plow on with this. It’s not like we’ve got a boss who’s coming in and saying so curiously on reflection, Lee and I went three different places to write this film. One was at a placed called Wild [not understood 0:55:27.6] our friend’s beach shack. Another one was a place in Malibu in California and the third was at another beach house in St. Andrews in Victoria in Australia. We found on reflection that we’d written a total of six weeks all up at three different beach places. We didn’t on the beach or to any of the houses. We went swimming and surfing and getting prawns or yabbies’ from the sea. I think it was a very cathartic experience hearing the waves or hearing the water or just being in places that didn’t have televisions, that you didn’t sort of wake up and have a full case 60-inch plasma there or whatever. That was another thing that helped us was actually sort of jumping ahead and giving ourselves a deadline which you can do over time but unless it involves others, you’ll say I have to work at the laundry mat this week because I have a moment to write. Well, I meant to finish writing so finally the last thing that I learned from Lee, one of the many things I learned from him was in his action and in his formatting of the script, he would intentionally format the script to make you have to turn a page to for a reveal of a tense moment. He would realize if you had two more lines I would be able to get this—she peered her head down the corridor. All of a sudden—He had a way of formatting so you had to turn the page to find out what happens on all of a sudden coupled with that style of writing where he’s writing for the reader. This is the mansion I’m going to buy when this film becomes a masterpiece. It does take you out of the mood and the fictional place. What it does do is I guess it would be some brevity from having to focus the entire time and suddenly you’re almost complicit in reading this because one thing that’s always amazed me—and I hope Dr. George Miller speaks about this—is how different films are at the end of their lives, and your film, your dish dogs or whatever, at one stage they look exactly the same.
Ashley: Those two films look the same at very, very early stages.
Angus: Why not have story boards in your script? I have been in instances where I’ve received the script and it has a CD with music and it tells you in the script “Press track 11 now” and then you keep reading while track 11 plays.
Ashley: I think what you’re getting at is an excellent point. I get a lot of questions from screenwriters, hey, I’ve got this concept or hey I’ve got this music and the big hesitation I always have with telling people to do that is people don’t realize like the people in Hollywood are like the best people so if you’re going to include concept art or music, it’s got to be really good or you’re going to look like a real amateur. And that’s always my fear with suggestions like what you just made. You’re totally right, it can be creative and it can work great but what you’re going to be compared to and what the readers of that material, what they’re expecting is topflight stuff.
Angus: I certainly wouldn’t recommend doing that as in my god, I’ve got to read a script and find a CD player and get out their Michael Bolton CD I’ve got in there and find a covert for Michael Bolton. But at the same time, George Miller’s scripts, their story boards or the matrix, they’ve story-boarded every shot and both those films are very well-resourced. But the flip side of this why not? It’s a question for the individual. Why do all films look the same at script stage, most films rather than all? There are varying theories on that but fundamentally what seems to be happening more and more now is that people say I wrote this film for Bill Murray. I wrote this for Jeff Bridges rather than I think you could have Robert Patrick in this role and maybe Tom Cruz, it just depends. What seems to happen is that people are seeking these actors out and going to say I wrote this for you, Kevin Spacey. You send it to Kevin Spacey—and I guess that’s another way of providing some structure to yourself and brace to yourself and a voice, dare I say. The challenge there is you just do it. Your take on what Kevin Spacey would say if he was a sheriff in the wild west so I think that your listeners and you are well-aware, I think there is nothing that’s tried and true other than embracing those obstacles, embracing those rejections, embracing the fact that your script is too low, that you can only raise 400 bucks to make your films and the people who are able to never get those obstacles with wit and stamina, they’re the ones who will get hired. Ultimately I feel they’re the ones who you go you know what, you only have to be two of three things. I’ve heard this in a few spots where it’s like you only have to deliver your work, do two or three things: (1) Deliver your work on time. (2) Be nice to work with and (3) Deliver good work regardless of when you deliver it. And you only have to do two of those things. You can be nice to work with and you deliver your work on time, that’s keeping this around or you could deliver great work and be nice to work with. That would be ideal and have it on time. You only have to do two of the three. Again, it comes back to the question of what’s good work? What’s great work? That is the joy of art I guess or the joy of what we do is that if someone doesn’t like it, invariably someone else will; they have to.
Ashley: Let’s talk a bit about just the business side of The Mule. How did it just kind of come together in terms of now you have a script, what was the next step, raising the money, putting the production together? Maybe you can tell us just sort of how the actually production, once you had a script you liked, how you actually got all this together and got to shooting.
Angus: We in Australia are very fortunate enough to have federal film funding agency and state-based ones. For us we went to our older television producer employers, Bruce Kane and Paul Clark, and said do you think you could help us navigate this seemingly bureaucratic process to get some money for the film? And they did and very quickly found out that you had to have all these other things in place like a letter of commitment from a sales agent, a letter of commitment from a local distributor, and you quickly realized that all of this is coming down to the script; all of this is coming down to your screenplay even when they say who have you got attached and you’re like well, we’re talking to James Cromwell, he’s shown a bit of interest.
Ashley: You don’t think having Lee as a writer and obviously also a producer, I mean, he’s got such a track record with some of these big movies, that doesn’t help certainly getting some of these things, but that doesn’t help a great deal? Do you think that getting the actors was—?
Angus: It absolutely does but at the same time, it’s taxpayer money so there’s a mass of transparency around it and I guess if you just say that someone like Lee obviously with an incredible track record, yes, it makes the decision easier or justifiable for some I would imagine. But fundamentally there needs to be–if they just approved the script and it came out horribly the audience and the taxpayers of Australia rightly would say this is crap. Who paid for this? My money paid for this? So there’s pressure on both sides of the coin but we’re very privileged to be able to have that in Australia. You’re not required to pay that money back. As long as you’re promoting and you reach a certain amount of qualifying expenditure promoting and featuring Australian content, you don’t actually have to pay that money back. And it doesn’t happen anywhere in the commercial world unless you’re maybe in cahoots with the Bill Gates Foundation. But that’s huge for Australian filmmakers to have that support.
Ashley: So tell me, too, about South by Southwest. I’m always curious just as a filmmaker myself how you got into South by Southwest? Was it a producer’s rep? Did you know someone or you just sent the film in blind and they just liked it so they took it? How did that go down?
Angus: Our sales agency, the largest sales agent in the world, you would think that they could just sort of get you into any film festival, that’s all right, I know the person at the door. I don’t have a tie. Listen, I can get you in. But the reality is that doesn’t happen. Filmmaking is more accessible where more and more people every month now and so dare I say the competition to get into these festivals is tighter and tighter and hotter and hotter each year. You apply. Yes, you can say there is a benefit that comes from having a sales agent, they can write to Pete Edwards at the Nevada State Film Festival and say hey, Pete, keep an eye out for one of our titles. It’s called Ninja Apocalypse and so they get called. Of course, that’s what happens. Of course, that’s what happens at Sundance. It’s not like you’ve got things in turns watching every film and it’s like Charlie Bucket from Willie Wonka and they run through the Mormon state. They go I’ve found it. I’ve found Blue Ruin! Blue Ruin everybody, it’s here. That doesn’t happen. People go to these festivals every year. The agents named Chad go up on their blackberries and make an appearance for two days, don’t look up from their blackberries and then go back to LA. It is a fairly closed shop but there also these incredible mentoring programs and certainly in places like Sundance and wherever your listeners listen, it’s a decision for the screenwriters to make because invariably what ends up happening is they want access to your screenplay. They want you to submit your screenplay blindly to some people you don’t know and go submit your screenplay and you too could qualify for capital fund of ten thousand dollars to finish off a pass but then there are these caveats that you have to have a broadcast there. I guess Lee and I were very reluctant to submit our screenplay randomly to our competition per se. We wanted to get it to a point where we thought we’d be comfortable sharing this now and we would like to get some feedback from certain people. We identified certain people that we sought their feedback on and what quickly becomes apparent is when some notes become a chorus where three people say yeah, it is a shame that it turns out the dragon was just a dream. You go right, okay, we should look at that. The first instinct is a bit of defensiveness but when one note becomes two, then it’s certainly worth your attention beyond just chewing it over and coming up with an answer. In regards to actually getting your screenplay into [not understood 1:12:58.1] Blacklist is a very legitimate way of having your film read by lots of people and giving it the best chance. If you don’t live in Los Angeles and you don’t have a connection to Gersch or Paradigm or CAA, it’s a great way to look at how people are positioning their film, what their one-paragraph synopsis is or what their short synopsis is and fundamentally the more you read and the more you listen to the music, the more films you watch, the more boxing training you do, the better the boxer you become. So it’s really a matter of the last woman or last man standing.
Ashley: So let’s talk about how people can see The Mule. Maybe you can talk about some release dates for it as well as you had mentioned in the pre-interview about a Twitter event that’s coming up for it. Just kind of tell us about that stuff.
Angus: Well, The Mule is being released simultaneously in Australia, America, Canada, and New Zealand on November 21 elevated digital and [not understood 1:14:29.2] in America. For us as an independent film, we need to give the audience the best chance to access the film with limited print advertising spending, limited marketing, and limited support around promoting the film, you’re only going to get a limited audience. And if you show the film theatrically for a cinematic season, then there are caveats that come with it. They’re called release windows, theatrical release windows. In America it’s sitting around 105 days. In Australia it’s 120 days where that you agree not to release it on other platforms. Obviously in America they have the audience to sustain that. In Australia we don’t and so we’ve chosen to bypass the traditional cinematic release even though our contract with E1 says that we are obliged to it with respect to all our partners. Rather than put it on in a few cinemas and have people say it didn’t get the same figures as Guardians of the Galaxy, it must be a terrible film. For us it’s let’s try to protect our brand a little more. Rather than just say you know the tiny film that opened in two cinemas, we’re actually going to the bridesmaids first. We’re going to the bridesmaids and what is it? We’ll come to you first. We’ll partner up. Do you think you could release the film in like four countries? That’s a new story or a curious angle at least. And so we’ve been trying to do that with our audience the entire way. We’re having a live viewing of The Mule on December 6 Pacific time at 9:00 PM. It would be midnight that night so 7:00 AM in New York and we want everybody to watch the press play at the same time, watch this film. We’ll have the cast; we’ll have the filmmakers, we’ll have friends profiled, all watching the film The Mule. Themulemovie is our Twitter handle and it will be like watching special features I guess on a Blue Ray but you’ll be able to communicate with Lee, myself, and the cast and our various department heads and what have you. There is so much that people will be able to choose from now. For us we actually want to try to engage an audience and do it on a level on Twitter where you can actually have direct access to those folk.
Ashley: Perfect! I will link to all that in the show notes so people can find that. So, I’m curious too. Maybe you could mention your personal Twitter handle. How can people just keep up with you personally about what you’re doing and what you’re working on?
Angus: It’s just my name, Angussampson (not understood 1:18:05.9] and Lee’s is @lwhannell. For us I’m a bit more intermittent on Twitter although as of late have been, all those varying productions I’m involved in, pushing me to write more and so it’s a fantastic way to access a lot of people very quickly. I’ve never had Facebook but what I read of it nowadays is that they actually make it hard for you to connect with those people that you used to have common links with. Now it’s all right, you’re into films, we’ll separate the film people and in exchange for that you want to connect with the film people, it’s $6.30 a day or whatever so there doesn’t seem to be that subterfuge dare I say that, on Twitter. It’s not difficult for me to type in a name and it’s there or I can write to you. It seems to be a lot more film-friendly.
Ashley: I’d be curious to see how that shakes out over the next couple of years but I totally agree. Angus, you’ve been very generous with your time. This has been a great interview, very amusing and lots of great tips. So I really do appreciate it.
Angus: Thank you so much. Shoot me a message on Skype if and when it makes it up. I’ll definitely pass it on to Lee. We’ll write you some messages afterwards, of course. Thanks so much, Ashley.
Ashley: I’m going to be running another online class called How To Write a Killer First Act for your screenplay. I’m going to be doing a deep dive into two great screenplays, Unforgiven and Jerry McGuire. These are both great scripts with great first acts and there are a lot of lessons I’ll be pulling out of them. This is the fourth class in this series which is going to guide you through the entire screenwriting process from concept to outline to writing to marketing. If you missed the first three classes, no problem. I have recorded them and have put them in the sysselect forum for you to listen to at your leisure. The class is going to be on Saturday, December 13 at 10:00 AM Pacific time. If you’d like to learn more about this class, go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/classes. Also, if you’re listening to this after the class has taken place, that’s not a problem. I will record this class too and put it in the sysselect forum. In fact, all the classes that I have been teaching through this program are recorded and are in the forum for sysselect members to listen to. There are more than a dozen classes in there now so to learn more about this, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com.
In the next episode of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast I’m going to be interviewing Corey Mandell. Corey is a screenwriter and a screenwriting teacher. He’s got a very unique approach to writing and really offers up some great insight to all writers. We have a great conversation that covers quite a bit of ground. I learned a lot from talking to him. Still mulling over a lot of what we discussed, there is a lot of great information in the interview for screenwriters at all levels so keep an eye out for that interview next week.
To wrap things up, I just want to touch on a few things from today’s interview with Angus. I thought it was really interesting how he was able to turn his acting gig into a writing gig. Obviously most people listening to this podcast aren’t actors and won’t have that specific opportunity but to me it’s really about seizing the opportunities that you do have which is exactly what he did. He showed initiative; he saw some opportunities and he took those opportunities. There are a lot of different types of production jobs from lawyers to accountants to assistants so no matter what you do, you need to put yourself into a place where you might find a source of opportunities and then you need to make the most out of them.
On the flip side, you might very well be working at a company that has some sort of screenwriting needs. No matter what job you currently have, maybe you could write a script for an advertisement for the company. Maybe you could even go out and shoot that ad and put it on YouTube. You just don’t know where things are going to lead. Even doing something as small as that is still a professional credit that you can show people. Come up with an interesting, creative, funny ad and that’s something you can use in your query letter, something you can put on your resume, again, as a professional credit and it just shows initiative. It’s going to show initiative to your boss. You just don’t know where things are going to lead. Maybe he ends up hiring you to do more commercials if you just do one for free and it actually is funny, and it is actually good.
I also think it should be noted that Angus spent time going to school to be a copywriter. Any sort of job that writing, especially something in advertising where you’re really trying to use words to get people to understand your message, this is a great training ground for screenwriters. So again, as you’re sort of preparing your career, you’re getting out of college, see if you can’t find a job that gets you into a position where you’re using words and writing words every day. This would be just a great sort of a base for you once you become a professional screenwriter. Maybe just take a step back for a minute and maybe there are some realistic things that you could be doing right now that could make yourself better as a writer to help you prepare yourself for a professional career. Maybe there are writing opportunities in your current company. Maybe there are copywriting opportunities in your current company that you could find, and if you show some initiative, you express some interest, maybe your boss would let you do these things.
Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.