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SYS Podcast Episode 275: Writer/Director James Dylan On His New Contained Feature Thriller [Cargo] (transcript)

This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 275: Writer/Director James Dylan On His New Contained Feature Thriller [Cargo].

SYS Podcast Episode #275: James Dylan

Ashley: Welcome to Episode #275 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screen writer and blogger over at www.sellingyourccreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing James Dylan who just wrote and directed a low budget feature film called Cargo, another great story from someone who’s out there making things happen for themselves, so stay tuned for that interview. If you find this episode valuable please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes, or leaving a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook.

These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast so they’re very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast and then just look for Episode Number #275. 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 logline and query letter and how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. Really it’s everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.

So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer-director James Dylan. Here is the interview.

Ashley: Welcome James to the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.

James: Thanks very much for having me. I appreciate it.

Ashley: So to start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?

James: I grew up in Northern California Silicon Valley area, and it was just the seeing movie after movie [inaudible 00:02:02] watching movies late at night pretty much and just watching them over and over again, that pretty much got the idea that this is really what I wanna do. I liked all kinds of movies, big commercials, Hollywood Blockbusters, little independent films that nobody else saw, foreign films, crazy Horror movies, crazy Asian Horror movies, just every film and every genre and country. Movies are pretty powerful and pretty overwhelming, and just I think that this is really what I had to just get out there and pursue. It’s just one of those things that you figure… a lot of people I think sit around, especially maybe in Hollywood, “When I’m I gonna get my break?”

But it gets to a point where you just kinda have to say you have to go out and kind of make your own way and make your own break, so to speak, make your film, write your own script, that sort of thing. That was kinda why I got into the industry.

Ashley: Okay. So let’s just back up a little bit. Did you go to film school… it sounds like you were sort of that film geek, you were into all kinds of movies, probably you were shooting stuff with your phone or your video camera or whatever back in the day. Was there film school and then once you got out of film school was there some production jobs? Maybe just walk us through some of those steps. Before getting to Cargo, what was sort of your background between after high school and before Cargo?

James: I took a couple of film classes, a couple of screenwriting classes then I kind of stepped away from that, then I moved out after saving up a good amount of money, I moved out to the LA area, and just works the day job during the day and would write at night, sending out scripts. I just did that for a number of years and just had a couple of meetings, couple of filmmakers, couple of producers, but nothing really sealed the deal until I just kinda figured I got to try making my own film, and so I just wanted to come up with something, just a very basic, simple concept like the one we came up for Cargo.

Ashley: Yeah. And so it sounds like that was your intention, going into this you wanted to be a writer, or did you wanna be a director-writer or producer-writer? What was your intention going into this?

James: At first I thought I’d go into screenwriting because I’d figured that was… I had read stories about the director [inaudible 00:04:15] Walter Halley, thought he heard that you could direct a film by writing a good screenplay, that was kind of his way and so I figured there are other filmmakers who just made their own film. So it was basically a combination of wanting to be a writer and a director. To be both.

Ashley: I got you. So you’re living in Hollywood, you’re a fresh face, you get down into LA, what were you doing to get those scripts out there? I always get those questions, “How do you get you scripts…?” It sounds like you at least got some meetings out of it. How did you get those meetings, were you using services, were you just doing network events? Maybe talk through some of sort of your tips and tricks for people that are screenwriters stumbling into Hollywood.

James: It was just a lot of persistence and a lot of it. Sometimes, I mean, I remember I… thankfully this business isn’t around anymore there before the early days of the internet there was some… there were businesses that were kind of like scam or these things where you could pay like $50 0r $100 and they’d put out like a little newsletter and they’d say they’d send it to… they had a list of producers they said they were sending it to, things like that. Now it’s just kind of what they used to call cold calling, now it’s just kind of like emailing and websites now like Stage 32 that they have where producers come on and look at scripts so the internet makes it a lot easier, but it’s just a lot of persistence and just a lot of sending out emails and just contacting anybody you can.

It’s just kind of being relentless about it and just keep trying and at a certain point figuring you have to make your own film and then try sending it out to distributors and producers using things like getting an IMDb Pro account so you can find distributors that are looking for your particular type of film.

Ashley: Perfect, yeah. And it sounds like… is IMDb Pro, is that your main way of getting these email addresses for producers to send the scripts to?

James: Yeah, that was part of it, and it was just kind of like I had a meeting a number of years ago with the director Noel Black who was not really famous. Some people said he only did one good film, a film that was classic film role I think with Anthony Hopskins… I think it was Anthony Perkins, excuse me for that, and Tuesday Weld called Pretty Poison from the 1960’s and he had these other films, a lot of television credits… He had a successful career but he really didn’t really didn’t really take them. So I had to meet… I’d seen one of his films from the 1980’s so I ended up just finding him online on a directors’ website and I sent it to him. We had a meeting at his house in Santa Monica, a beautiful place, but the project ended up going nowhere.

He passed away a couple years back but I think that was my first meeting with a professional director, but after that point I just figured, well, nobody’s doing me any favors, so I got to pretty much make my own project, so…

Ashley: Yeah, so that brings us to Cargo. So let’s dig in to Cargo and kinda talk about that. Maybe to start you can just give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is Cargo all about?

James: Cargo was… I wanted to make… I remember it was at one of my favorite movie theatres Arclight Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard and I went to see a couple of films there. One day I was in there all by myself, it was a film called Buried with Ryan Reynolds. Another one was called… with Tom Hardy called Locke, and I thought I was going to see another Tom Hardy film with James Gandolfini, I forget what the title of it was, but I didn’t know anything about Locke I was like… “Is this movie gonna take place 100% inside a speeding SUV on the English countryside?” I was like, “Yeah, it was.” So I just saw these two films, I thought about other one main man films like All Is Lost with Robert Redford, just like a man on a boat lost at sea.

I thought that is something with similar concept and I was working for a container shipping company and I was walking around inside one one day and I thought, “Being trapped in this, alright that wouldn’t be a scary as saying being buried alive, being trapped in one of these but it would give a lot more movement, you could add a lot more interesting camera movements, you can find space… The thing about it was you really wouldn’t have to change the lighting. The lighting pretty much stayed the same the whole time and you’re working with one actor and just doing voice overs. You can move pretty fast, I think we shot 50 pages in the first three days, and I was doing like five, six, seven takes to the set up stuff to set up stuff like that, so we got plenty of takes. You can move pretty fast with one actor, so I was pretty brave. We shot it in about eight days.

Ashley: Okay. Wow. So I actually had Chris Sparling on years ago on the podcast. I’d be curious… He’s the writer of Buried, and I’d be curious to hear your thoughts… did you get any pushback, because that was immediately… I read the logline on IMDb and it’s like that’s immediately what I thought. Buried has kind of become the gold standard obviously. You can’t really do much better in terms of one guy in one confined location. Did you get some push back from people, from producers or distributors that it’s too much like Buried, was it good? Maybe you could kind of draft on some of those one location films. So maybe it was a plus. Maybe you can talk about that a little bit. Were you concerned that there might be too many similarities?

James: Yeah, there was, but of course those are the films that influenced it. I think they’re great films, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have… like say, years ago there was a great film called Jaws that came out and then there was a lot of Jaws knock offs. There was Piranha I think and there was Piranha 2 which was James Cameron’s first film. I think there was really only one good Jaws knock off, this film that came out in 1980 with Robert Foster whose career was pretty much over by that time and Quentin Terentino rediscovered him for Jacky Brown years later in a film called Alligator, written  by I think director John Sayles I think and it’s pretty much… so I was kind of thinking in those terms, maybe I can make kind of like a film that’s based off a similar premise but take it and put a new twist on it, something like that. But there were some reviewers that… like the folks at [inaudible 00:10:24] he like it quite a bit, a young woman who I forgot her name, at the website called, horror website, called 1428 Elm, which is the address of The Nightmare on Elm Street movie, she like it quite a bit. But there’re others who were just very dismissive of it from the get go, just said, “No way no. And next we’re gonna view Buried, Oh! I’m sorry I mean Cargo,” things like that, smartasses you know probably you could certainly read between the lines somebody who was just… I mean, if you don’t like a film you don’t like it. Not everything is for everybody, I get that but you can sometimes tell that people are just kind of bitter hacks who would never have the guts to make their own film and so there was kinda that. You don’t like it, I completely have to accept that, but there was some push back from certain critics and something like that, so yeah.

Ashley: Okay. But it doesn’t sound like it really worried you much. I mean, you kinda knew what you were doing and you wanted to make your movie that you wanted to make.

James: Yeah, you just kinda have to jump in with both feet, I mean the criticism, I might think the same thing myself, but you just gotta have to go ahead and just try and make the best film you can and just hope for the best.

Ashley: For sure. So let’s talk about your writing process a little bit. Where do you typically write, do you have an office or you go to Starbucks? What does that look like?

James: I usually write at home, sometimes in the morning, I found sometimes it can really vary, sometimes it depends, there’ve been times that I’ve written from like morning till night. But a lot of times I’ve found myself writing in the morning and I quit during midday, something like that. Sometimes I’ll just sit there kind of like and nothing is coming and you’re blocked up and other times it just all comes out and it’s very… Usually it’s early in the morning, afternoons, stuff like that, around that time.

Ashley: Okay. When you’re working on a screenplay, how much time do you spend doing the outline, basically the index cards, the outlining as opposed to just being in final draft and actually writing the dialogue and character descriptions and stuff. How much time do you spend in this section roughly?

James: It really depends. I don’t really use index cards. What I really do was just kind of like write out a Word document or something like that or just a piece of paper, just like one line describing a chunk of a scene or section like this happens and this happens and this happens and when I have enough of that  I usually don’t have the… they might have certain sections planned out but I have a rough idea where it’s going, I’m just trying. My problem usually when I’m writing is people when they write they have… they write and they write and they have too much and they have to cut back. A lot of times when I write something it’s just like I can come up with a certain amount but it’s not quite feature linked so I have to think to get it to feature linked.

I don’t have trouble coming up with another feature. I usually get there but a lot of people have the exact same problem, they write too much, they have to throw everything out. Me I kind of write very… I like to keep the pros pretty tight and contained and… what they always say they taught you they teach you film is a visual medium, show, don’t tell, that kinda thing but it’s just that that’s usually my process of writing something.

Ashley: Let’s about some of the potential problems you had writing a movie like Cargo where you do have literally one actor and very limited locations. As I said, Barry I think did a creative job with some of that stuff and you obviously were well versed with Barry so you can’t just completely rip that stuff of. How did you come up with new ways of making this interesting, such a static environment interesting, visually interesting, just interesting as a movie going experience?

James: You just start off and you… some of it you just think of things from shamelessly borrow from other people’s work. I mean, maybe like using when a scene’s becoming [inaudible 00:14:12] you’re supposed to be like up the tension of it, maybe you just have the cinematographer do a spin around. We did different things in this. Some people said it worked, some people said it didn’t where you would hear a character on the… you’d see the main character talking to a character on the line, there was another character who was say in a car or something like that and he just tells him maybe he’s being chased by the cops he says, “Just get out of there.” Maybe we’d do something to sort of like… we’d have the Steadicam just zoom by the actor as if the car was peeling out or burning away or burning rubber.

If there’s like a chase scene in the car, the camera we just sort of like move around the actor in kinda like a zooming motion. Some people said it worked, some people didn’t but I thought that was a little different take on it but it was just writing out relatively detailed shot list about just a clip, mixing it up sometimes I put a really good static some would work, sometimes I mean… just like a one point perspective type of shot, another time it’s just us spinning and a very signal, a very sense of like just wide shots and just getting extreme close-ups to the side of the actors and it’s just things like that and just keeping a lot of variables and a lot of different things just to keep that one after one character setting visually interesting.

Ashley: Sure. How do you know when your script is ready to show to others? You wrote this draft of the script… what does that development process look like? But first how do you know? How do you know it doesn’t need another rewrite? Maybe talk through that a little bit.

James: Well, for this one I wrote it pretty fast because my scripts in the past I figured were just sweat and sweat and go over and over. This is a number of years go, and go over and over it. And I look back at some of those scripts and I’m like… everybody’s got a lot of… whether even one of the great writers have got things that are on their computer or wherever in a drawer somewhere that are just unreadable. And I look at some of those and think, “I put so much work into this it just doesn’t work with this.” I figured I’d just write this pretty fast and just… and I [inaudible 00:16:15] the thing I think is I’m writing it, am I interested in it? Am I engaged? And when it was done I would send sections to my producer J.C. Maçek who also wrote the original novel which he got published by a publisher Blood Hound Books and it’s out on Amazon now and pretty well received.

And I would just send it to J.C. and he was also at the producer and he also did a few of the voice over roles, and he would just write me back and he’d just say this, this, that and the other and he’d just point out things like little details to make the… maybe there was a lapse in logic, things like that. So he was kinda my sounding board, so it was just me and him back and forth until we finally said, “Okay let’s go for it, let’s make it.”

Ashley: How did you approach screenplay structure with something like this? Is it sort of the classic three act structure with your act breaks and stuff? Maybe talk through that a little bit because obviously with one character and one location maybe that gets a little modified. But what’s your approach to screenplay structure and then specifically to this project?

James: It’s just really more about… a lot of times I’ve felt that sometimes, I read a lot of screenwriting books and they would specify things like this certain thing has to happen on this certain page by this certain page and I felt that if I just kind of let that go and… because it was just too structured… it just was kind of freeing to just let all those rules go. I mean, yeah you gotta have a certain amount of structure, but following a lot of those rules that you might hear in a screenwriting class or a book or something or read a book or something like that it just, I don’t know, they were just kinda limiting to me so I had to push those by the wayside and kind of just I was thinking… just keep raising the stakes.

Raise the stakes, just keep putting your character through hell just keep raising the stakes and upping the ante so to speak and just builds to a climax pretty much up the end. That’s how I saw it so that’s how I came about it. It was kind of like not really looking at the classic screenplay structures so much but just trying to keep the story moving, keep it engaging and keep upping the ante for the character and raising the stakes.

Ashley: Yeah. That’s sound advice. So now you’re done with your screenplay, you have a draft that you like you wanna go shoot it. What was your process for actually raising the money? Did you guys self-fund it, did you do Kickstarter, did you guys go to distributors and try and presell? Maybe talk through that a little bit.

James: Basically I just funded it myself from savings and from credit cards and things like that and we shot at actually in… The biggest part was getting where I’m thinking, “Where am I gonna get a 40 foot cargo container?” I knew we could probably rent them but the thing is I’m an apartment dweller in LA and sometimes I drive by people who would have cargo containers like they have a big open front yard or in their back yard or something like that so I figured, “Wow, if I just had somebody who had one of those containers and eventually I found a place that was local and we just decided to put it in the front yard of my cinematographer and also one of the producers Chris Gosch’s front yard of his new house that he had bought.

And I was on the phone then we got the 40 foot container and he said it was being delivered then he calls me on the phone and I’m driving down there he says, “Were not gonna be able to use the 40 foot container, it’s not fitting in the yard. It’s just not gonna fit.” I said, “Okay.” I was very disappointed and I hung up and I thought, “I needed that 40 foot container because I wanted it for the pacing [inaudible 00:19:48].” We got the 30 foot container. When they delivered the 30 foot container it was like delivering a tank. I mean, it’s just a container but they put it like, “Okay, that’s just gonna be more than good enough.” So when we went into that, we opened it up and we walk in and it’s just beautifully pristine painted, pristine white inside the container.

It was brand new, not a scratch on it and my cinematographer told me, “Wow, this is not gonna work with this. The light’s gonna bounce all around, we can’t shoot in this all white container.” I didn’t even see this all, but I was just happy it was there. So what we had to do was paint this container. I said, “We can’t paint this container, it’s a rented container and it’s rented in my name. No,what we’ll do is we paint it whatever we wanna paint it then we paint it back.” Much more of guerilla filmmaker type thing. Let’s do it right if we’re gonna do it so it’s like… So they went and got like 10, 20 cans of spray paint and they spray painted it all black and strung up the lights how I wanted it and it looked like very much like something like a [inaudible 00:20:40] type villain would put a character in so yeah. It was just kind of like very much guerilla Indie in Indie filmmaking which I guess you could say. Yeah?

Ashley: Yeah. So let’s talk about then you get the film done. What was your process there for finding a distributor? Did you go to a lot of festivals, did you end up approaching distributors directly? Maybe talk through that just a little bit.

James: I got on IMDbPro and I was just looking at similar Horror films and figured who distributed them and just contacting them directly. A lot of them you go on their websites and they will just say, “Submit to us we’re always looking for new films. Or I was going through sales agents and people in places in the UK and United States, in Canada. And a number of them said, “Okay, I’ll check it out,” but a number of them said, “Well, we like it but we don’t really think we could market it.” And finally we came down to two or three that made us an offer, and one sales agent made us an offer and we finally went with the Wild Eye Releasing because they really have a passion for it.  They mostly release Horror movies, but also release things like the occasional documentary and things like that, but I just had the feeling they really had a passion for this type of filmmaking, this type of Horror filmmaking.

Ashley: Yeah. So I just like to end the interviews by asking the guest if there’s something they’ve seen recently. I’m always curious what people are watching. Something on Netflix, HBO, Hulu at the movie theatre, what have you seen recently that you felt was really excellent.

James: I’ve been watching a lot of the Walking Dead… something that was really excellent…  Nothing comes really to mind, I always blank out. I see everything but then I just kinda blank out. But there’s one thing that I saw, I re-watched a great South Korean film Oldboy again recently and that’s an absolutely brilliant film if anybody hasn’t seen that. And watched part of… I’ve been watching some older film, Apocalypse now, the classic and the gentleman who did… Rian Johnson, his first film Brick, that’s something I re-watched recently. A great film and people… he got a lot of controversy for The last Jedi, but his first film Brick I think even his haters I think would really enjoy that. So I’d say check… if you haven’t seen Oldboy check that out or Rian Johnson’s first film Brick. It’s a brilliant film.

Ashley: Yeah. Okay. Two good films for sure. What’s the best way for people to see Cargo? Do you know what the release schedule’s gonna be like, where is it gonna be and how can people catch it?

James: It’s streaming right now on Video On Demand, Pay-per-view and it’s also right now on Amazon streaming so they can just go and find it on Amazon Prime right now on DVD or on streaming. And they can also check out the original screenplay by Thorsten Quaeschning of the band Tangerine Dream, the front man of Tangerine Dream. I grew up seeing a lot of classic films like Risky Business and Sorcerer were scored by Tangerine Dream. They were popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I actually put an ad on Craigslist looking for a Tangerine Dream type score and somebody saw this in Berlin, Germany. Somebody on Thorsten Quaeschning and he contacted me saying, “Hello this is Thorsten Quaeschning of Tangerine Dream. This sounds like fun sir.

Sure, just send me some copy of the screening of the film.” And he ended up doing it and he couldn’t get that… it’s on download and Vinyl and CD. That it was actually a score and he’s a big Beatles fan so the masters for the Vinyl of the sound track was scored at Abbey Road Studios. So it’s really a brilliant sound track, so we’ve got like it’s a triple deal, you’ve got the film, you got the official publishing organization by J.C Maçek on Amazon by Blood Hound Books and it’s great, very authentic, if you like the theme music from the TV show Stranger Things and that’s very Tangerine Dreamesque very like if you remember any of those film’s that was Tangerine Dream scores. It’s very reminiscent of that. You can pick up the Cargo official soundtrack on Vinyl, CD or download it on Amazon Tube by Thorsten Quaeschning of Tangerine Dreams.

Really great happy acts and that somebody like him, he did… it wasn’t a Tangerine Dream album, it was with his other Picture Pulse Music but you want a Tangerine Dream soundtrack and the guy who’s in Tangerine Dream, took over from the leader Froese actually composes your soundtrack and performs all the instruments themselves, it’s pretty great.

Ashley: Yeah, that’s a fantastic story.

James: Yeah, I think it’s pretty great. Yeah.

Ashley: That’s great. So what’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing, a blog, Twitter, anything you’re comfortable sharing I’ll round up and put in the show notes.

James: You could just look me up on www.james.dylan.four on Facebook or you can just look me up on IMDb and you can find me there.

Ashley: Perfect. James, I really appreciate your time today, taking some time out to talk with me. Great interview, I wish you the best of luck with this film.

James: Okay, thank you very much sir.

Ashley: Thank you James, will talk to you later.

James: Bye bye.

Ashley: 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 logline, 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.sellingyourscreenplayselect.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 are 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 gamut. There’s producers looking for a specific type of spec script to producers looking to hire a screenwriter to write up one of their ideas or properties. They’re looking for shorts, they’re looking for features, TV and web series, pilots all types of different projects. If you sign up for SYS Select you’ll get these leads 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 logline and query letter and answer any screenwriting related questions that you might have. Also in the forum are all the recorded screenwriting classes that I’ve done over the 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, 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.

On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing writer Brian Ackley who just wrote a cool Sci-Fi feature film called 2050, starring Dean Cain. We talk about this project and how he got involved with it as well as the early stages of his career, doing short films and low budget features. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s the show, thank you for listening.