This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 075: Screenwriters Julius Onah & Mayuran Tiruchelvam Talk About Their New Film, The Girl Is In Trouble.
Ashley: Welcome to episode 75 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger, over at sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing Julius Onah and Mayuran Tirochawa. They just wrote a film called “The Girl Is in Trouble” starring Columbus Short and Wilmer Vladirama. I talk in detail about how they got this film produced including how they got Spike Lee involved as an executive producer so stay tuned for that.
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So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing Julius Onah and Mayuran Tiruchelva. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome, Julius and Mayuran to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show.
Julius: Thanks so much for having us.
Ashley: So maybe to start out, you guys can just give us a quick overview of your careers, how you got started in the entertainment industry and kind of got to where you are today. Mayuran why don’t you go ahead and start.
Mayuran: Well, how did I get to where I am today? I started out working as a community organizer for many years before I became a filmmaker. I was always interested in film and telling stories, and so I decided to go to grad school for film. I went to Columbia University, and since then I’ve been making independent films. I make a couple films a year, and I was very lucky. Julius and I have known each other since college. He asked me to work on a film with him, and he was at NYU and I was at Columbia. It was kind of a great uptown/downtown collaboration.
Ashley: Perfect. So Julius, maybe you could just give us a quick overview of your career.
Julius: Well, my career starts with Mayuran Tirachavam. What he didn’t mention was a short film that I direct was produced by him. We worked together many, many years ago when we were quite young and in college and have continued to stay in touch. Mayuran actually got me my first job in New York at Tim’s Radio Store led by Columbia so we always have had a passion for film. We’ve always had a passion for social issues, and we’ve always been interested in trying to bring both of those passions together. I knew I wanted to make films from a very, very early age and going to college was an opportunity to get a foothold into that. I had interned for Spike Lee when I was quite young at the age of 19 and ultimately when I went back to graduate school at NYU I reconnected with Spike, and I had an idea of making a film. It was a noir, and the first person I thought of when I went to work on it was Mayuran. Luckily he agreed to work with me so we started putting the film together. We worked on the film together, and he produced it and I directed it. That film was both of our first leaps into professional filmmaking.
Ashley: Okay. Great! So on IMDB I’ve noticed over the last ten years you guys have done a bunch of shorts, and that’s one of the things I always recommend especially for newer screenwriters. It’s like you go in and make some shorts, you team up with some directors, and maybe you can just briefly comment on that. What did you do with these shorts? Did you send them to festivals? What kind of success did you have? How did that help your careers?
Mayuran: I think short filmmaking is a great exercise in collaboration and how to work with a crew, how to work with others, your DP’s, actors and all that stuff. It’s a great tool for the making of relationships, learning how to be a professional filmmaker. The days of someone having a short at a festival and getting success and getting a three-feature deal from a studio are probably behind us at least for the time being, but I think of it as a great training ground. You just learn how to make films. I think between the two of us we probably made a couple dozen shorts either producer, written or directed. That’s just a great experience.
Ashley: Are there some sort of concrete threads that link your shorts to doing features? Are there some things that got networked or something that kind of connected the two?
Julius: Echoing what Mayuran said, it was a real opportunity to practice and learn and experiment and I think for both of us the opportunity to start playing with ideas that were important to us and themes about identity and about culture. So a lot of the shorts that he and I worked on, we did another short together called The Boundary about the internment of [inaudible 0:07:48.1] interrogation and holding of Muslim-Americans after 9/11. These are all things that were centered around the issues that were important to us so it’s the case that those short films were really a stepping stone to our futures, not just in terms of learning the technical and craft-based elements of filmmaking, but also learning about what we wanted to say and what we wanted to explore.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. And maybe you can just give us briefly kind of a rundown. You guys go out and shoot a short; then what do you do with it to promote it, film festivals? Do you send it to agents? Do you send emails to agents with a link to the film? Just run us through sort of your process of promoting your shorts?
Mayuran: I find that the great thing about shorts now from funding them through Kick starter or Indi-Go-Go and then getting them on the Internet through various mechanisms is that they’re a great tool for building an audience, and if you build an audience of people who care about you and your work and can bring them with you when you go to make your feature film, I think it’s a super useful—much more than sort of sending it to someone in the industry is to connect with fans, connect with people who are passionate about the same things that you care about. Those people have really supported us in everything that we’ve done since then. And every filmmaker whom I’ve worked with whom I have produced a short for them, I feel about the great audience, that they are going to use on their next films to get it out there.
Ashley: And what do you do to build that audience? You were talking about putting it on YouTube and sending the link to your friends and hoping that they pass it on to their friends?
Mayuran: I think it’s important to be really strategic about it. I think it’s like when you’re writing [inaudible 0:09:52.0] and figure out who is the audience for this film and how can I start cultivating them even before we shot a single frame of film. So crowd-sourcing is one great way. I produce the short which is about demolition derby drivers. We reached out to the people from the demolition derby community. We made a little documentary about that world as a kind of promotional tool, and it’s like a neat little subculture that the people who are in it are really passionate about it. They got on board to crowd-find the financing of the short itself, and now that it’s out there on the Internet, they’re still sharing it a couple years later; we got fifty or more new fans on Facebook and Twitter a month for this little short that’s played a lot of festivals. That’s really great for the filmmaker because if he wants to go make a feature in this world or reach out, I think it’s about what she did and finding the audiences as opposed to throwing it on YouTube or throwing it on Facebook and hoping someone pays attention. And Julius is also super good at being strategic his source, and you can maybe talk about the one that you made on the cell phone which I think is really good, sort of three things going viral.
Julius: I had an opportunity to make a short on a cell phone in Poland, and that was actually somewhat influential in terms of just the style, the story and using voiceover and a much looser camera and everything Mayuran said. There are so many great opportunities now to build communities around their shorts. I had another short that I put on Vimeo on a website called Short of the Week, and that short has now seen upwards of 45 or 55 in views. So not only is it a place where I don’t [inaudible 0:12:01.3] the next time I have a short or a film I want to put out, there’s an audience that is aware of some of what I’ve done, and I go to meetings sometimes with actors or agents. They go on line and look me up and then they see that work as well. So I think just like Mayuran said, finding ways to target a community of people who support your work and letting that live somewhere online, it becomes a meeting point in the future for what you’re doing, and the web has become such a great utility for that.
Ashley: Yeah, very smart. Those are some excellent tips. Okay, so let’s dive into your latest film “The Girl Is in Trouble” starring Columbus Short and Wilmer Vladirama from “That 70’s Show”. Maybe to start out you guys can just give us a quick pitch of the story. Basically what’s the log line in case our viewers have not seen the trailer yet?
Julius: The film is a film noir set in the lower east side of New York, and it focuses on Columbus’ character who is a failed DJ who also works as a bartender, and he comes across as kind of a femme fatale who’s a singer from Sweden, and she’s witnessed a crime. And together she and Columbus’ character conspire to use evidence that they’ve got from her after she taped a murder on a cell phone, use it to blackmail the son of a billionaire in New York who’s involved in the financial industry. And this murder that’s happened actually is the brother of the character played by Vladirama who’s a drug dealer. So what ends up happening with these four people’s lives and their histories are intertwined as they try and one-up each other and either get the money or exact revenge. And the Lower East Side is kind of the fifth major character in our film. We take you through the history of the lower east side and how different immigrant groups have informed that history and also how our characters are reflective of the history of integration of the lower east side and in a way the history of [inaudible 0:14:11.6] in America.
Ashley: Okay. That’s a great pitch. So are you guys big fans of film noir? What were some of your influences with this film?
Mayuran: I think a big one is [inaudible 0:14:26.8] from Naked City and also [inaudible 0:14:31.0] and the other films that he did once he went back to Europe. Kiss Me Deadly is another great noir. There are so many. I think in general any movie is sort of about these desperate people in desperate circumstances have been a good influence on that kind of story.
Julius: Yeah, a Pick-up on South Street was another really seminal movie for us. Mayuran and I both love that genre, that era of film and the fact that a lot of the noirs of the 30’s and 40’s, these were films being made by immigrant filmmakers, people fleeing from Europe and World War II and post-World War II as well, and they brought an outside aesthetic and mentality into how they made the films in America, and that was something really attractive for two guys who are immigrants ourselves, Mayuran and me.
Ashley: I’m curious what kind of a reception you got with the script in terms of being film noir? I bet you I’ve written a bunch of film noir scripts myself, and one of the things I always get is kind of like film noir is a little bit passé. There hasn’t been a big hit. When LA Confidential came out, everyone said it was a great movie, but it didn’t do any business. And ever since then it just seems like people kind of want to steer away from film noir from a marketing standpoint. Most filmmakers love it, but from a marketing standpoint, did you get any push-back. A lot of my film noir scripts, I’ve kind of retooled them and now they’re kind of like sexy thrillers or something instead of film noir. But did you get any push-back just from the financiers or people who were potentially were going to buy this script?
Julius: No, not really, just because our script was really written and designed to be a small sum. It was a low-budget film so we wrote it in such a way that it actually became more attractive to finance it so they could support something that had genre elements to it but was also an affordable investment. And then on top of that, we worked really hard to make our noir feel as contemporary as possible just in terms of the way the story is structured, some of the elements of how characters are connected to each other. It is very of the moment and present tense script, and we also didn’t want to rule out influence by the spirit of the noirs we loved. We weren’t trying to do homage or anything like that. So it gave us the opportunity to kind of again take some of the archetypes but really do it in a way that didn’t feel too self-conscious so it seemed overtly like a noir but instead it felt like a modern story when we saw some of these archetypes in a different context. Wilmer’s character is kind of like a detective. Columbus is in over our head, our female lead played by [inaudible 0:17:32.7] is our femme fatale and then Jessie Spencer is our heavy, but none of those characters play those roles in the typical way you might envision from a classic noir. There is a very modern spin to all of it.
Ashley: For sure. Let’s talk a little bit about your writing process. I’ve written a bunch of scripts with other people, and I’m always curious just here how other writers collaborate? What is your writing process look like? I know both of you guys sitting in the same room spitballing ideas, one person is at the keyboard. Just describe kind of how you went about writing this script.
Mayuran: We spend most of the time together sort of outlining the whole film, coming up with all of the piece, the character arts, and all that stuff, and then we would take turns working on teams. So he would do a passage; I would do a passage. Sometimes we’re side by side. Sometimes he was in LA or I was uptown and he was downtown. A lot of it is sort of sharing and being pretty open to when you put your ideas on the page and you’re working in collaboration so we learn not to be precious about anything and to really be open and listen to your partner because you know you’re working together because you trust that person’s instincts and because you care about that person’s vision. So it’s nice to collaborate with another person.
Ashley: Maybe we can talk a little bit about what was kind of your first steps to actually go out and raise the money, get this thing sold and get this thing made? What was sort of your first steps and how did it ultimately come to pass that this movie did get produced?
Mayuran: The first step was really Spike Lee who is the executive producer of the film. Julius was at NYU at the time in the film program. Spike is one of the creative chairs of the program there, and so we took the script to him. Spike read it and he liked it. And then we decided to be sort of involved in it. Well, if you liked it so much, why don’t you help us get it made and attach yourself as an executive producer? He said okay, make these changes and come back next week. He didn’t say yes. He just said make these changes and come back next week. This went on for almost two months. We would meet with him on a Thursday. We would rewrite over the weekend and get it to him on a Monday and meet with him on a Thursday, and he would give us notes and help us kind of nuance the script. And then he was like okay, now how are you going to make it? I need to see a budget and a schedule. So we did that and we took that to him. The next week he has us sit down with his agent and with some other people, and we start kind of getting the ball rolling on making this movie. Our producers on the film were the folks who we worked with on our previous shorts, and so they came on and they really help us also raise the money for the film, and it’s all through private equity and individuals. So between Spike and really hard work of the producers we were able to kind of put the movie together.
Ashley: And I’m curious so Spike Lee is the executive producer. What exactly does that mean? I mean, you just said he gave you notes so that’s obviously incredibly valuable, a seasoned filmmaker giving you really specific notes on your script so I can definitely see that. He introduced you to the agent, but it sounds like then you were able to raise the money through your own contacts. So what else did he do as executive producer, and what does that exactly mean?
Julius: Well, he also has closed money and interesting the financiers in the fact that they liked the script. They liked Mayuran and I and had faith in the team we were putting together. It was really critical for a lot of these people to meet Spike and know that he was also going to be helping oversee the process and that the money would be spent responsibly so [inaudible 0:21:52.8] sat down with Spike and talked to him about the film, some of our sales reps as well who were in contact with Spike. So the business of the film was built around Spike’s incredible experience and success as an independent film director, producer, and writer and his mentorship of us and overseeing the project so he truly was our executive producer because we would not have been able to raise that money and secure the trust and faith of our financiers without Spike being on board.
Ashley: Tell me when did the distribution come into this equation? Did you start to get some distributors involved? Again obviously having Spike Lee attached to the project as executive producer I’m sure he could introduce you to people and help with that, but just give us a little overview of sort of when the distribution comes in with a film like this?
Mayuran: We were very fortunate. The film played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year at a festival for new voices in black cinema, and it was sort of like a preview festival of works that have just come out and haven’t really launched on the theatrical circuit. Our distributor saw the film there, and they loved the audience’s reaction and they came on board.
Ashley: So it really was through a festival. How can people see us? Maybe you can kind of tell us the schedule. When is the movie going to be released? Are you guys going to do a theatrical release and then when will it come out on Netflix and Video On Demand and that kind of stuff?
Mayuran: The movie premiered April 3, today in theatres in New York City and on ITunes and VOD across the country so it’s available right now on ITunes, Amazon, X-box, almost every cable platform, Direct TV, you name it. People can watch it now, and the stars, Wilmer, Jeffrey, Columbus and Alicia are kind of full-court press on the Twitter, social media world, really getting the word out there. We’ve gotten some great reviews and people can see it right away.
Ashley: I always like to sort of end the interviews. Can you guys just tell us how can people follow you and potentially contact you, maybe give your Twitter handle, Facebook page, or a blog email, whatever you feel comfortable sharing.
Mayuran: My Twitter handle is @mayurantiru and my website is mayurantiru.com so folks can follow me there. My production company is Oddville Films, and we make a lot of independent documentaries.
Ashley: Actually that would be very good. I will link to those in the show notes so definitely send me those links, and what about you, Julius? Are you on Twitter or Facebook?
Julius: You know, I’m one of those guys who is not on the bandwagon, but at the same time if anybody wants to anxiously meet me, that’s the way to do it. That would be a good way to go.
Ashley: Okay. Perfect. As I said, I will get those links from Mayuran and I will link to those in the show notes. I would applaud you guys as I love film noir. I thought this was a really great film. I totally enjoyed it so I wish you the best of luck with it. Thank you very much for coming on and talking with me today.
Julius: Thank you so much, Ashley. It was a real treat to be here and talk to you.
Ashley: Thank you very much.
A quick plug for my email and fax blast service. I’m running a special right now where you can purchase one-third of the blast for a little more than 50 dollars. The total list is around six thousand contacts so this first one-third is still well over two thousand contacts so it’s still a very large number of producers. I’ve done this just to lower the barrier to entry so that people can check out the blast service without having to invest a whole lot of money up front. The one thing that hasn’t changed, I still require that you join Sys Select which at the time of this recording is just $24.99 per month. The reason I require this as part of the process is that I’m going to personally look at your log line inquiry letter and help you make them as good as possible. This will be to everyone’s benefit. It will keep the lists working well. All of these people can unsubscribe if they don’t like the query letters that they’re getting so obviously the better the query letter is the more likely they are to not unsubscribe. Also I have a lot of experience submitting cold query letters. As I said, I’m going to look at your query letter. I’m going to look at your log line, and I’m going to help you so your response rate will be hopefully better with having me actually look at it. So the one-third blast plus one month of Sys Select is just 78 dollars, and that’s a blast again to more than two thousand industry producers. It’s really never going to get any cheaper than that. So if you’ve ever wanted to give this service a try, now is the time. Anyway, to check this out go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/blast.
In the next episode of the podcast I’m going to be interviewing Cain Sans who recently wrote and directed a film called Echoes of War, a post-Civil War drama starring William Forsyth and James Badgedale. It’s an interesting film. It’s a period piece and Caine is actually Australian even though, as I said, takes place in the post-Civil War era. So we talk a great length about how he got this film made and what attracted him to this material so keep an eye out for that episode next week.
To wrap things up, I just want to touch on something from today’s interview with Julius and Mayuran. I’m the big proponent of doing shorts as a good first step in a screenwriting career. I think the template they’re laying out for themselves is exactly the reason why. I also want to call attention to something that Mayuran talked about, how they got funding for some of the shorts that they did. Really listen to what he’s saying. They found some small niches that had a passionate community of people and then made a film for those passionate people. There are tons of these types of small communities of people out there, everything from people who own a specific very obscure type of pet to people who are interested in some very unique obscure sport. You name it; there are people who are interested in these small niche things. And with the Internet it’s never been easier to find these types of communities. Usually these communities have leaders or people who are sort of at the forefront of this niche and the key is to connect with those people because those people will be able to kind of get you in touch with all the other people in the community. If you can befriend one of the leaders of this community, that can really help guide the entire community towards your project. This isn’t just a one-side relationship where you contact someone and ask them how they can help you. You’ve got to make it a win/win for everyone involved. It can’t just be about you and how they can help you. If you really think hard too, you might already be involved in a community like this. Think about your hobbies. Think about your interests and see if there isn’t some sort of community around that hobby or interest and get involved more with that community. But in any event, if you can tap into a passionate group of people, those are exactly the sorts of people who are quite likely to support a kick starter campaign and donate money. So it’s a fine line. You’ve got to find a community that’s small enough that is underserved. There are not bigger players trying to serve that community. But it’s got to be big enough so it’s got to be small in niche enough that they feel a real sense of passion and a real sense of ownership of whatever that niche is, but by the same token, it’s got to be big enough that they can actually support a film. So it’s a fine line. You’ve got to really think about what your film’s going to be about and how it’s going to serve this community. And this can work, too. This can work all the way up from shorts as Mayuran mentioned all the way up to feature films as well.
A script I wrote a few years ago, it was currently optioned to a producer who was essentially trying to execute something very similar to what I just outlined, it’s a baseball comedy and most of the film takes place at one minor-league ballpark. So what we’re doing is we’re approaching minor-league baseball teams and telling them that we’ll rewrite the script to perfectly suit their team. We’ll incorporate their mascot. We’ll incorporate their colors; we’ll incorporate their stadium. We’ll literally rewrite the script to really incorporate the unique things about their minor-league team so this script will really be about them. And we’re hoping that the team obviously will kick in some money. They can call it a market expense, whatever. We’re hoping that they kick in money, but we’re also hoping to tap into the loyal community that this minor league team has, and we’ll try and run a kick starter campaign and we will have this relationship hopefully with this minor league team, and they can help us get in touch with all of these very, very passionate baseball fans who are very passionate about this minor league team. So it can be like a really cool thing. I mean, the idea here is we’re going to create a really cool film specifically for these minor league fans. It’s going to take place in their stadium; we’ll probably use a lot of them as extras so it will just be a real community type of a film. We’re hoping that by getting the first step, getting the minor league team involved. We’re hoping that by getting them involved, we’re doing exactly what I just outlined. We’re getting the leader of this passionate community of people. We’re getting the leadership which is the minor league team involved and then hopefully they’re going to help us get the rest of the community involved and supporting this film and ultimately help with supporting a kick starter campaign for it. So that’s the idea anyway. I definitely will keep you guys updated as this thing progresses. But hopefully you can just see some potential in what I’m talking about for yourself and really listening to what Mayuran says. You don’t have to start with a feature film. Start with a very small short and go out there, connect with a community and see if you can’t do a kick starter campaign. The great thing about shorts in this day and age, I mean two thousand dollars or three thousand dollars can easily produce quite a nice short film, and it’s not that difficult to find a community. That’s only like a hundred people. Give them thirty bucks and you’ve got three thousand dollars. You don’t need a huge community of people to support this to actually make it work.
Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.