Ashley: Welcome to Episode #229 of the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger of the www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing writer- director Piotr Szkopiak who just did a film called The Last Witness. We talk through how he was able to get this film produced as well as how he was able to break into the business with a small indie film that he did [inaudible 00:00:27] years ago. Stay tuned for that interview. If you find this episode viable please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving me a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread a word about the podcast so they’re very much appreciated.
Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode incase you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast, and then just look for Episode Number #229. If you want my free guide- How to Sell a Screenplay in Five Weeks you can pick that up by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free, you just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new 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. I’ll teach you how to write a professional log line and query letter and how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. Really it’s everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. To pick that free guide up just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
Now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer-director Piotr Szkopiak. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Piotr to the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me.
Piotr: Thank you so much for having me and looking forward to it.
Ashley: To start out maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Piotr: I was born in London and so I’m London, UK born and bred of Polish parents. Both my parents are Polish. From a filmmaking point of view absolutely no background in film at all in the family. This all came from just a love for film as I got older I got more into the [inaudible 00:02:28] and I think at a point where you start going to the cinema on your own to see films that you particularly want to see I think then you get the bug and it stops being a hobby and an entertainment and it starts being something more serious. My break came when I got a job first at MTV Europe which was my first job in TV that was based in London. And then from then a contact I got a job at what would then be Sky B which is now Sky TV which is also based just outside of London and that was a job on the movie channel Sky Movies and The Movie Channel.
I became an intern. I went in as an intern, I became what they call an interstitial director. I was making the little promos in between the films [inaudible 00:03:18] what film was on the 8 o’clock or 10 o’clock or 12 o’clock, these kind of things. But the main thing was that I got together with three kind of like minded friends that I met at Sky and we started running around making short films, music videos, short documentaries under the guise of Formation Productions. We called ourselves Formation Productions and we run around in our spare time making films and music videos and documentaries. That is really where it came from. All this time, I’ve got to say there was never a kind of a moment where as a kid I was thinking, “Oh my God, I wanna be a film director,” or “I wanna make movies,” because in my opinion it wasn’t possible.
It was because I didn’t know anybody in the business, I thought that’s too much of a leap. That is never gonna be something that’s possible. So really as I went along I was making up as I went along. I made a short film, people liked it, I made another one and another one. In the end I made three and I just kept going. The big moment was when I actually left Sky and made the decision to make my first feature film, to write, produce, edit my first feature film. This was the early ‘90s when the likes of Robert Rodrigues in America were making their films [inaudible 00:04:37] coming out and there was very much the movement in America of just go out and do it and I kind of was part of that in the UK. So having made my short films I then decided to go the whole hog and just give it a go and see if I could make a full feature film. That became my first feature film which was something called Small Time Obsession. And really from then…that got a UK cinema release and then I carried on.
It was what was gonna be the next film, what was gonna be the next film. I wrote another three scripts and The Last Witness was one of those. Now Small Time Obsession came out in the cinema in 2000, The Last Witness is coming out now. So the main point is I didn’t think it would take me that long to make my second film but it has and to be honest it’s probably better for it because in that time I’ve been working in UK TV drama. That became ultimately my ultimate film school just doing the job and learning on the job and just developing the craft and developing the craft from a writing point of view and also from a directing point of view to get to the point that I was ready to take on something that was obviously a lot more personal and a lot more…well, which came with a lot more responsibility than my first film because the last one it deals with just oracle fact and not just sort of a story just off the blank page.
Ashley: I just wanna dig into a couple of things you said. I know a lot of people listen to this podcast, they probably have a low level job at a production company or an agency or something. Maybe you can just give a couple of tips, how do you politely do that job but also tell people that, “Hey, I’m also a writer, I’m also a director, would you look at my short film, would you read my script?” Was that a part of your strategy or did it just happen organically? Maybe you have a couple of suggestions for people that are in that situation of how to be polite and respectful but still push yourself forward.
Piotr: Yeah, I think the best advice is to use what is around you. I didn’t push because at that point I was still learning and because I was at The Movie Channel obviously there were editing suites. I knew directors, I knew editors and the main thing was…and I hope they don’t mind me saying this, that all of the night those edit suites were standing empty and obviously because they knew us they would allow us to go in there and just cut little short films and cut around work. Really I was just using what was around me and I think that’s the best advice. I’m still kind of doing that. I’m using the contacts I have around me, I’m using the equipment that I can hire from people obviously from your contacts because they should know most of it is who you know.
But if you are working in a production company somewhere that is making films or making production it doesn’t have to be official. It can be factual anything. You haven’t got access to filmmakers to story tellers and you have to use that. That is your ultimate film school for me. And so that’s all I did. I just used what was around me, learned from what was around me and in the end the only way to do it is to do it. It’s never been easier to make a film because you can make a film on your phone, you can edit on your laptop, you can be self-sufficient. I don’t need to borrow a professional edit suite anymore because I got the editing equipment on my laptop. So it’s all about just going out and making it and then what reaction you get because you are making it to learn your craft that you then obviously I would like to think want people to see that because you’re making as an entertainment for an audience.
And then as I did, you show somebody and if they like it you keep going or you amend. You’re constantly learning from that point of view. But the only way really to learn is to get out there and just make stuff.
Ashley: Yeah, I know. I totally agree. So just real quick on Small Time Obsession, how were you able to raise the money for that, did you go find investors or was it basically self-funded?
Piotr: Self-funded. My attitude was nobody knows me. I’ve never made anything before, who’s gonna invest in me? It’s not gonna happen. So at every level it was the case of, “Well, who’s gonna…” I wanted to be a director, there’s no question. After doing the short films the directing was what was sort of turned me the most and that’s what I was happiest with. But when it came to the writing it was much more…”Well, no one’s gonna write this for me so I will write it for myself. I will write something for myself to direct, obviously then I have control over all the locations, the budget, everything because you just again look at what you have and weave the story with the locations and with the stories and the experiences that you know. So it was totally self-funded.
It was funded through myself, my family and friends, people who knew me and in the end they invested in me. Not so much invested in the story because obviously they didn’t know how it was gonna turn out but they invested in me and I suppose the passion I had for the project and wanted to support me. And obviously what you do is you try and convince even those people that you’re serious and that you’ve got a good idea and that you have ambition for it. And so even from that point, even though these are people that know you, you are still selling your project as you would to any other investor. With Last Witness these were now investors who didn’t know me, so you stepped up to the next level of trying to sell your project to people who don’t know you and now you are on much more of a professional level. So I’m not saying that Small Time Obsession was an amateur production, not at all. But from a funding and producing point of view it was very much a homegrown, self-financed project.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. Okay, let’s dig into The Last Witness. Maybe to start out you can just give us a quick pitch or a log line. What is this film all about?
Piotr: This a young journalist. This is set in 1947 in England and it is about a young journalist who’s ambitious, who wants to succeed. He’s probably one of the first wave of investigative journalists if you like because that’s a relatively new idea. Before journalists were kind of told what to write and they had bosses who told them, whereas he is much more of a rebel, a thinker and he has ambition. He wants to write that big story. As you know classic, political thrillers, he comes across something that doesn’t look right and as a result he comes across the Katyn Massacre and then the subsequent cover up of that massacre by the British and the American governments.
Ashley: And where did this idea come from? How did you get involved with this story?
Piotr: Paul Szambowski my co-writer wrote a play called Katyn Witness and I saw that play in 1995. He then saw my film Small Time Obsession when it came out in the cinema and he wrote to me and he said, “You know what, if you’re thinking about making another film I think Katyn Witness would make a good film.” At that point his play was set pretty much in one room so I wasn’t sure. But I thought about it and I thought actually if I can open this up and make this a more cinematic idea then it works on many levels as I said because it was a personal project because my grandfather was actually executed in the Katyn Massacre. That was my own family history as well after the war. It was an interesting story because it was a murder mystery ultimately.
And I just thought it was something different and you’re always looking as a screenwriter obviously for something that isn’t out there. Something that your unique selling point and I thought it had a unique selling point even though it was quite a difficult ask because I wasn’t starting as I was saying from a blank page. I was actually working with already the structure of his play and the fact that I had the limitations of historical fact as well. So those two things made it actually quite difficult because I had to weave the story in amongst all that, all the stuff that was already there. So that wasn’t a straight forward kind of script. The other scripts I was writing were just blank page. Start with an idea and make it up as you go.
Ashley: What did that relationship between you and Paul look like? Did you option the play and then went and wrote a script based on his play or was he involved in the actual writing of the script?
Piotr: It worked really well with us because I optioned the play so once I said, “Yeah Paul, I think this is a good idea, I think we’ll do this,” he agreed and then I optioned the play. He had already written a screenplay but he hadn’t written it in screenplay format. So the first thing I did straight away was just rewrite his screenplay in screenplay format just to see where it will land, how long it is, what works, what doesn’t work and so on. That was the first idea and then from then on it worked in that because it’s a play write a lot of it was very dialogue led and being a director-filmmaker I was very much visual led. The dialogue to me is as the books tell you, the least important or the last thing you think about whereas with Paul, most of the story was told through the dialogue.
But he had done all the research a little bit on the history, he likes doing research, he’s good with dialogue. So that’s what he dealt with and then I would in a way edit everything that he would give me and also work on the structure of opening the whole thing out from that one room into what I thought was a more cinematic story and a story that would move and turn it into that structure of a movie and take it away from the structure of a play.
Ashley: So you’re working on this with Paul, you’re turning it into a polished script. Maybe let’s talk about your development process a little bit. First off, how do you know when the script is at a point where you need to get some outside people giving you notes?
Piotr: There was a turning point. I worked with Paul, I don’t know how many drops we did, maybe three or four drops and then I thought as you rightly say, “Okay, I need someone to read this, I need a reader to read this, I need to get some kind of outside input because you get too close to it and then in the end…not that you’re saying you don’t know if it’s working or not but you don’t know if it’s working or not. You need someone to say, “Yes it’s fine, it’s working, move on.” And so there was a scriptwriting course I think it was. But it was almost like a competition. You would put your script into this competition and if it won then you would be placed with a producer who was also wanting to work with a writer on the opposite side and you would be given sessions with a professional script reader who would then look at your script and then give notes and then obviously that would help you to move forward.
That’s what happened and I kind of won that competition, was placed with a producer and we had sessions with a script reader. What came out of that was the script was the script and the screenplay and the movie itself stopped being a drama and that point it turned into a thriller. That was the turning point. I think when it stopped being a drama and became a thriller and became a murder mystery, that was the important moment for me and that’s what that did. The outside input, that’s what that did.
Ashley: Now, moving this screenplay from a drama to a thriller, was that purely just a creative choice you felt it made the material stronger or was there some outside input saying, “Well, a thriller would be an easier film for us to sell.” What were those reasonings for trying to make it more of a mystery thriller?
Piotr: Combination of everything. I love thrillers. I’ve always come from thrillers, that’s the sort of films I enjoy watching. Small Time Obsession was a drama and yes, dramas are the hardest things to sell. We know that the thriller is the most popular genre, I think it still is and it’s also a more…The subject matter itself when you think about it is quite heavy and I was very worried as I said before when you’re thinking about an audience thinking I’m trying to sell a very heavy historical drama that felt less attractive to me than saying this is a murder mystery with this backdrop of the Katyn Massacre and so it stops being a film about the Massacre [inaudible 00:18:53] and starts being a murder mystery about this guy who we don’t know who he is but the back and drop of that is this historical event that was actually true.
And so it just felt to me like a film I would want to see. The first script in the way I was trying to make something that worked but I still didn’t feel like the sort of film I’d want to go to the cinema and see. So the decision was how do I bring an audience to this subject and I thought by doing it as a thriller that would be more successful.
Ashley: Yeah. I’m curious too, you mentioned that as you started writing this script you had two other projects that were more of just an idea that you were riding on. Is there a reason that this one made it into production first? Did you put all your eggs in this one basket for The Last Witness and really push hard on that one and set the other two projects aside or have you been working on all three of the of the projects and this is just for whatever reason the project that got produced first?
Piotr: Yeah, all three are very different. One is a contemporary thriller with a female lead, the other one is a horror film set in Roman Britain and this was The Last Witness. I was working in parallel on all of them. What happened was ultimately when I was pitching to producers and so on, The Last Witness kept coming up as being the most interesting to them. So it was actually funny enough the hardest one to write but it was the one that everybody was most interested in because I suppose for all those reasons, because it did have a USP and it was slightly different to the norm.
Ashley: Okay, so now you have a solid script that you’re happy about. What were those next steps of actually raising the money and getting into production? Maybe you can talk a little bit about that process.
Piotr: Once the script was what I felt was ready and obviously that just comes from feedback as well. It got to a producer, got to Carol Harding the producer or The Last Witness. She worked in television drama as well. I had worked with her as a director in television drama so we knew each other as well and she’s very good on the script. Once she said this is a script we can now take to funders and investors that was good enough for me. And that’s where she took over and I think the first time she took the script to investors was when she went to the Berlin Film Festival in 2011 I think it was, something like that. That’s where it started. We got interest from Poland which was interesting to me because I wasn’t sure if Poland would actually be interested in the film funny enough because I made it in English.
I was trying to pitch the film as a film for audiences that knew absolutely nothing about the Katyn Massacre, that it was just a political thriller in the style of the ‘70s political thrillers like Three Days of The Condor, things that something happens and then they uncover this conspiracy. In this case it just happened to be that it was true and it was the Katyn Massacre in this case. But it could have been any conspiracy, that’s how I looked at it. But Poland was very interested in it because again they didn’t know the story from the English point of view. They actually didn’t know the story of The Last Witness or weren’t aware of it. So that was very interesting and once the Polish got produced and got involved we tried to go for Polish money.
In the end we got Polish distribution involved and the rest was from filmmaking contacts that Carol had, so American and British investors. But again, most of the people were people that we knew but they were film investors rather than going down the crowd funding route or the private equity route.
Ashley: Yeah. At any point were you bringing on some cast like when she showed up in 2011 at the Berlin market, did she have some cast attached to the project or at that point it was just you as a director and here’s the script?
Piotr: Before Carol had to come on board I was producing it myself for a while. I was finding locations because I was writing it and obviously for myself to direct. Because I’d already produced Small Time Obsession I knew what I could do beforehand and I was looking for locations to obviously help me with the script and see what was possible and what wasn’t possible. I always had one eye on production if you like. So I had already spoken to a few actors, I had already attached a few actors to the film but because it took time and obviously as you go to investors, investors will say, “Well, they may be not big enough for us so it’s [inaudible 00:24:24] do we need actors that are more current or more relevant.” That was the process that continued all the way through almost till when we started shooting.
Ashley: I see, perfect. So how can people see The Last Witness, do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Piotr: The worldwide theatrical release sort of starts in Poland on the 11th of May, so that’s this time next week it will be on generally nationwide in Poland. That’s the first time it will be in the cinema. And then on the 29th of May it’s released in the US on VOD and digital HD.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. And I just like to round up the interviews by asking the guest how people can keep up with what you’re doing, anything you’re comfortable sharing, a twitter handle, Facebook page, blog, anything that you use I can put in the show notes.
Piotr: Now there are but I can’t find my twitter address [laughs]. But yes, absolutely, I’m on twitter and that’s probably the best place to go for information.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. I’ll be able to track that down so I’ll put that in the show notes and people can click over to it. Well, Piotr I really appreciate your time talking with me today and good luck with this film.
Piotr: Thank you very much and thanks so much for talking to me. Thank you.
Ashley: Thank you, will talk to you later, bye.
I just wanna talk quickly about SYS Select. It’s a service for screenwriters to help them sell their screenplays and get writing assignments. The first part of the service is the SYS Select Screenplay database. Screenwriters upload their screenplays along with a log line, synopsis and other pertinent information like budget and genre and then producers search for and hopefully find screenplays that they wanna produce. Dozens of producers are in the system looking for screenplays right now. I launched this service at the beginning of this year and we’ve already started to see some success stories. You can check out SYS podcast Episode #222 with Steve Deering. He was the first official success story to come out of the SYS Select database. You can learn more about all of this by going to www.sellingyourscreenlayselect.com.
When you join SYS Select you get access to the screenplay database that I just mentioned along with all the other services that we’re providing to SYS Select members. Those services include the monthly newsletter that goes out to our list of 400 producers who are actively seeking writers and screenplays. Each SYS Select member can pitch one screenplay in this monthly newsletter. We also have partnered with one of the premier paid screenwriting leads sites so I can syndicate their leads to SYS Select members. There are lots of great paid leads coming in each week from our partner. Recently we’ve been getting five to ten high quality paid leads per week. These leads run the game. There’s producers looking for a specific type of specs script, to producers looking to hire a screenwriter to write up one of their ideas or properties.
They are looking for shots, they are looking for features, TVs and web series pilots, all types of different projects. If you sign up for SYS Select you’ll get these emailed directly to you several times per week. Also you can get access to the SYS Select Forum where we will help you with your log line and query letter and answer any screenwriting related questions that you might have. Also as a member of SYS Select you will get help with your log line and query letter. We have a screenwriting forum where you can post your log line, post your query letter and you will get some notes on that to help improve those. Also in the forum are all the recorded screenwriting classes that I’ve done over the last couple of years, so you’ll have access to all of those as well.
The classes cover every part of the writing process from concept to outlining to the first act, the second act, the third act as well as other topics like writing short films and pitching your projects in person. Once again, if this sounds like something you would like to learn more about please go to www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com. In the next episode of the podcast I’m going to be interviewing writer-director Davon Cameron. He just did a film called Kid Brother. He is a filmmaker who lives in the Midwest and is building his career from there. We talk through how he was able to get his latest film produced as well as how he’s been able to forge a career living far away from Hollywood. So keep an eye out for that episode next week.
To wrap things up I just wanna touch on a few things from today’s interview with Piotr. Lots of great information in this interview. I especially liked the story he told about how he was working at a TV station and became friends with some other like-minded young people and they just started doing their own projects on the side in their spare time. So many success stories, especially success stories that we talk about here on the podcast, they all start with someone taking the initiative, not just sitting around waiting for someone to give them permission to go do something but actually just taking the initiative and going out and doing something on their own in their spare time. As I said, so many success stories seem to start that way. We didn’t talk a lot about it in the interview but Piotr has spent his career directing a ton of television.
Go and look him up on IMDb. He’s just got tons and tons of directing credits for different television shows. This is obviously a great way to get paid to work on one’s craft. All those years on set working as a TV directing are preparing him for these opportunities as a future film director, then when he’s working on his projects and he goes in there obviously no one is gonna question his experience as a director because he’s just got so much it actually adds something to the project and actually adds something to the package when he has this script and he’s trying to push it forward. So really keep that in mind. I think there’re probably lots of other ways that you could use your own skill set to get into the industry at least in some capacity. Obviously being a director and a writer on a TV show, those are real premium jobs.
Sometimes it takes a while to get to those points but there’s a lot of people that are listening to this podcast that do have skill sets. It may be legal skills, it may be accounting skills, bookkeeping skills, managerial skills, administrative skills. All these types of skills can be used in an environment that’s a production company just as you’re using them in whatever kind of company that you’re working. Again, just being in proximity of a production company, seeing how projects come to life in that context will really help you as a writer. I’ve been talking about this often on the podcast. I did a whole list about maybe Episode #75 of the podcast, I just went through and kind of chattered how the screenwriters that I had had on the podcast, how they had found success and so many of them the vast majority of them, they found success by working in the industry and I think Peter is another great example of living proof of that. Anyway, that’s the show, thank you for listening.