This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 287: Writer/Director Christopher Bradley Talks About Making His Indie Drama, The Trigger, Far From Hollywood.
SYS Podcast Episode #287: Christopher Bradley
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #287 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screen writer and blogger over at www.sellingyourccreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing writer- director Christopher Bradley. He’s an actor turned writer- director who just did an indie drama called The Trigger. He lives in Arizona and produced this movie there. We talk about that for a bit as well as his career as an actor and how that prepared him to write and direct this feature film. 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 #287. 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.
I just wanna quickly mention the writers group that I am in. We’re always looking to add good writers to the rotation. We meet every Tuesday at 7.15 pm until about 10.00 pm in Sherman Oaks, California, right around where the 405 and 101 intersect. There is also off shoots of the same writers group that meet on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday in North Hollywood, so if those nights are better or you’re closer to that you can still check all of these out and it might work for you. Some of the schedules on those other groups might work for you, but this group Deadline Junkies now has a session Monday through Thursday. Here’s how it works, each week three member writers put up around 25 pages of the screenplay they’re currently working on.
The pages are read on stage by professional actors in front of the other writers in the group, and then the listening writers give notes to the presenting writer. As a member writer you’ll be putting up pages roughly every five weeks. It’s a great way to workshop your material, network with other talented actors and writers and hone your critical thinking skills by giving notes to these other writers. This is a live in-person event, so you need to live somewhere in the Sherman Oaks, California area to be able to attend weekly. Again, the other Monday, Wednesday and Thursday nights are in North Hollywood, so you just have to be local to those areas and be able to get to those theaters. If you’re not in the Los Angeles area perhaps consider starting a writer’s group of your own.
Nearly every city in the world has a community of filmmakers and writers and in most cases they’re just looking for someone to step up and be a leader and get things organized. The interview I’m doing today actually with Christopher, he talks a little bit about his development process and how he’s in a writers group that is based in Arizona. So I know this can work in all different cities, all different areas of the world. The one big stumbling block for people that wanna join our groups, the Deadline Junkies group is that you do have to be committed to showing up nearly every Tuesday or whatever night the group is meeting. Even when you’re not up you need to still be there so that you can give notes to the other writers.
Obviously if you bring your pages then you’re gonna want notes on your pages from the other writers, so that’s how the group works. You show up even when you’re not presenting, you give notes and then vice versa. That writer, when he’s not presenting, he’ll show up and he’ll give notes to you. That’s the one big thing, you do have to be committed to showing up every week to be a member of this writers group. If you’d like to learn more about the group go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/writersgroup, and the word “writers group” is all one word and it’s all lower case. Just www.sellingyourscreenpla.com/writersgroup. I of course will add that to the show notes as well so you can click over to it.
A quick few words about what I’m working on. I’ve been talking about my horror- thriller mystery project that I’m trying to get going. Slowly but surely I am starting to ramp this up. I’ve been starting to think about the Kickstarter Campaign, which I’m hoping to run in August or September. A lot of stuff I need to think through before that, so these things do take time and like what I did with The Pinch, I’m not gonna rush things, I’m gonna go slowly. This is gonna be a low budget film so I don’t wanna waste money, I don’t have a lot of money to throw at this so time is gonna be the one thing that I kind of just give myself plenty of time to work through these various steps so that I can make sure they’re done as well as possible.
I wrote a little script this week for the short Kickstarter video so that was kind of a good step. I’m hoping to bring one or two actors on before the Kickstarter Campaign. And mainly I’m looking for actors who have large social media followings so that they can potentially really help out with the Kickstarter Campaign. So I’ve started to reach out to some actors and look around for that. Obviously they have to be right for the specific roles so that’s been a challenge, but hopefully I’ll be able to find one or two actors that would be a good fit for this. We have more than two thirds of the money in place, so it’s just about raising sort of that final one third. That’s really what we’re looking for through this Kickstarter.
I’ve been talking to some of the folks that I worked with on The Pinch about locations, equipment and crew, so that’s again just sort of behind the scenes. I have been starting to take some of those meetings and really it’s not even meetings at this point. It’s just phone calls and emails, just starting to get some of those things organized and then once the Kickstarter Campaign is ramped up and finished we have our money, then pre-production will really start in earnest. That’s the next step I would say for this project. Get the Kickstarter in place, get that, run that, raise the money and then from there we’ll be in pretty good shape because then we’ll have our money and we can just figure out when we’re actually gonna start shooting.
That’s what I’m working on, and that’s what I’ll probably be working on here for the next few weeks and months. Now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing writer-director Christopher Bradley. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Christopher to the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Christopher: Thank you for having me.
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?
Christopher: [laughs] Well, I grew up mostly in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was one of eight kids and when we moved to Albuquerque, Albuquerque was supposed to have this big economic explosion and instead the city just sprawled and it’s always had a troubled economy, and we did not have enough money for eight kids. We all got packed into the station wagon because you had like a dollar a car deal in the ‘60s and so they took all the eight kids in the station wagon to see The Sound of Music, and I’m watching this movie and it’s like there’s this huge family of kids and they live in a mansion and they’re running around the countryside and they’re singing and I’m just like, “Oh my God, I wanna go there!” Of course I’m seven years old so… we started in 1968, that’s by the time it got to the drive-in.
But I couldn’t quite separate out what was the children’s real lives and what was the movie, but I asked my mother, “Can you take me where I could get in a movie like that?” She said, “Maybe when you’re older,” and I said, “Will you take me when I’m eight, because when I’m eight I’ll be big [laughs]?” But it was probably the first time where I watched something and it was like something beyond my own life could happen. I think watching movies really my whole life has been about opening up compassion, opening up understanding, opening up possibilities. Like life could be this other way, you could make these other choices. But really right from then I knew that I wanted to be in the movies.
I actually was looking over some old journals. I kept a journal since I was 11 years old and when I was 18 I wrote down, “I wanna be a professional actor and I wanna be a professional writer.” I teach right now as well. I teach screenwriting in Arizona State, but one of the things I tell my students is, “Have an idea where you wanna go.” You don’t necessarily end up there, you’ll get close to it and it’s like, “That’s not quite where I wanna go, I may wanna go over here, I may wanna go over here,” but have a direction that you’re moving. I think with seeing that movie as a small child and making some decisions when I was a teenager about what direction I wanted to go was very powerful. So…
Ashley: Perfect. So then, what were some of your first steps? You saw this movie, you are eighteen, you wanna be a professional actor, a professional writer. What are then some of those first steps to actually going out there and turning this into a career?
Christopher: Well, I look back at my life and I feel like I have a very powerful guardian angel pounding me in the right direction, because one of the… I did plays in grade school and when I was in high school though, by then I had become just terribly shy and I knew that they were doing a musical production at school and it was like my heart’s pounding, I can’t breathe, it’s like I couldn’t possibly pull it together to go to an audition. And I was at the bus stop waiting to go home and these two girls that I was in school with came down to the bus stop and grabbed me and said, “You’re gonna go in and audition [laughs]. And I don’t know why, it’s like my guardian angel must have told them to do this.
I went in and gave what I thought was a pretty bad audition and I got in [laughs]. That experience, again, it was like that was the first time I performed in front of a large crowd and again, it was that same feeling of like I am home, I’m doing the right thing, this is where I need to be. I got a scholarship to college at Texas Christian University and my first year I was studying medicine. I was gonna do pre-med and I remember a friend of mine said, “You wanna be an actor, why are you doing this?” And it’s like, “No, I wanna do something that matters. I wanna do something that will change the world.” And he was like, “Movies change the world! Like what are you talking about? Of course they do, and you’re good at it and you’re… why would you go in another direction?”
So the next year I changed to Theater Major and weirdly, this is again like there’s a combination of… everybody I think has a certain amount of luck. You have to combine the luck with good decisions as well. But another piece of amazing luck, and I’ll tell you a few of them actually but Texas passed one of those tax incentive laws while I was in school. So I’m in Fort Worth, which is about 30 minutes from Dallas and all of a sudden they’re building sound stages in Dallas. They’re making movies in Dallas, they’re making TV movies in Dallas, they’re making commercials in Dallas and the talent agencies suddenly needed a lot of people. There was a director that I was in school with who was interning at one of the agencies and told them this guy is really good and you should sign him.
And so they did and one of the first things I auditioned for was a low budget slasher movie and weirdly, of all the things I’ve done, this would not be the thing I would expect to get a Blu-ray release, but about a year ago they did a Blu-ray release, brought me back to do an interview for the extras and I just… It’s a slasher movie. It shouldn’t have a cold following. It’s a low-budget slasher movie but I watched it again and I was like, “There’s something so… no matter what the subject matter is, the energy in the film is so good. And that was again a lesson for me, like there’s something behind the story. Films can have a goodness and a power that’s even behind the scenes that’s pushing something forward.
So after that, when I graduated from college, there’s again combination of good luck and good decisions. I met my… at the swimming pool of the apartment where I lived and one of the people who I lived in the apartment complex had gotten into a touring company of Pearl Joey, a Broadway touring company. They were going across the country and somebody dropped out and they had local auditions and he got in. So he invited one of the Broadway actresses to come to our swimming pool. And a friend of mine was like, “She’s a Broadway actress, you should ask her what do you do when you get to New York.” I’m like, “No, no Broadway actors.” And again, he grabbed me, forwarded me over to her and I got in a conversation with her and she saw my work in a play that I was doing at the time and she said, “You’re really good. My husband’s a personal manager. If you move to New York you should look him up.”
She gave me his name and number. I don’t know if she thought I would do it, but I did [laughter]. I moved to New York a few months after that and called him and auditioned for him and he signed me and he got me with a very powerful agent. They had an office out in LA, so when I moved from New York to LA I already had… because of the slasher movie I was already in the unions. I already had a powerful agent and I was already in the unions when I got to LA and I was waiting tables with people who were trying to get like one SAG point at the time for doing extra work and you needed 300 to get into SAG. So starting out in a small community like Dallas Fort Worth, getting my cards there, that turned out to be a really good thing because it’s extraordinarily difficult to get into the unions once you’re in LA.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. I’m curious and I have a couple of follow up questions. So you mentioned this feeling that you had when you were performing and it just felt right like you were doing the right thing. Where do you think that comes from? Why does this get you jazzed as opposed to being a doctor? And I wonder too, all these years later, you’re glad that guy talked you out of going and being a doctor.
Christopher: Well, I’m very glad. Yes. Absolutely. I think that there are many, many ways to be of service in the world. Let me give you my crap experience. I actually think that in some ways people have a certain amount of hard wiring, like you’re born with like a computer program that’s more appropriate to one thing than another. I think you’ll talk to people who just have a math mind. And I just feel like I have always had a story teller’s mind and as soon as I encountered storytelling I was like… everything about my brain was attracted to that. I wanted to add something that with writing, the first time I wrote a screenplay, there was that… way back and somebody has to hire you. Somebody had to give you permission to do it.
When I wrote my first screenplay, I had Syd Field’s screenwriting book just to get the very most basic things. It was again that sort of… I remember realizing that my face was burning as I was writing it. I probably wrote the whole thing in about a month. When I was finished I was just like, “No one can stop me from doing this [laughs]”. I don’t have to get hired to do this. All I need is a laptop and my brain and I can create. That script, I showed it to a few people and it had homosexuality in it and religious themes in it. And so I showed it to a couple of independent producers and it was like, “Wow, this is really good. No one wants this [laughs].” So I put it in a drawer and I was like, “I’ll see if I can write something else.”
I guess a couple of months later I got a phone call out of nowhere and somebody said, “Is this script still available?” I was like, “Yeah, it’s still available.” And a little production company optioned it. They didn’t end up making it but that put it into my mind if I, knowing as little as I know about screenwriting, if I could get a script optioned, maybe I ought to go to school. I applied to the UCLA screenwriting program and got in. So there you have to write a new screenplay every 16 weeks. So you’re basically in just this heavy, heavy writing concentration and it teaches you not to be precious, slam your first draft out, you do a lot of planning before you actually start writing.
But again that sense of like the way my brain is put together is in perfect sync with how screenwriting works. With this kind of storytelling. Did I answer your question by the way?
Ashley: Yeah, I think so. I think that’s a great answer. How do you think these decades… and I wanna just get a little bit of the timeline. You’ve been acting for a number of years and then you decide to write this screenplay and that was your first and it was a feature screenplay?
Ashley: Okay, and how many years had you been acting when you took that plunge and went to the UCLA program?
Christopher: I started acting professionally in ’83. So that was I went to UCLA in ’98.
Ashley: Over 10 years?
Ashley: I’m curious…
Christopher: Oh, and also about the acting too, one of the things that prepares you for writing and acting is you’re looking at a screenplay, you’re looking at story arcs. Like what’s my story arc, what’s this other person’s story arc? Even if you have a smaller part, every role has a climatic moment, so you’re like really looking at how are these story lines mixing together and what is the climatic moment that this character is building to. And if you’re a good actor and a trained actor you’re already in a writing structure mindset. I feel like all of that homework I did on the acting prepared me for becoming a screenwriter.
Ashley: Okay. Perfect. Yeah. And that was sort of my next question. I’d be curious… so then you started to do, looks like on your IMDb page you have a number of shorts that you’ve written and directed as well. And so maybe you can talk about how did those prepare you for a feature film like The Trigger, just in terms of not just the experience but maybe in the contacts, the promotion, just everything you can kind of tell us about how that got you ready for doing a feature.
Christopher: Great. Well, when I was in school at UCLA I… this was right as film was transitioning into digital. I had a lot of classmates who were spending $60,000, $70,000 on a short film and all my money was going into just going into school. So I wanted to make a short film. So there’s an animation program. I went to the head of the animation program and said, “How about letting me make an animated short film?” That’s like building your own house.” It’s like sweat equity. I didn’t have the money but I’m in school, I have the time and I have a certain amount of artistic talent. And so while I was in school I first made a short with cut paper. It was cut paper glued to clear cells and that was short on one of those old 1950’s animation cranes.
So you put the pages down, you put the piece of glass over it, you snap twice, take it out, you have to change it. It took me about 36 hours straight of sitting in that room drinking coffee to get that three- minute short film made. And then the second one I scanned construction paper into the computer and then I made something that looked like my cut paper film but I did it after effects. But those experiences, like I was directing the vocal performances and I wrote it, directed the vocal performances and then created the visuals by hand. But I didn’t want to try to make a feature film without first having dealt with a physical crew. I think that was a very good decision on my part.
I made a short film called The Violation and I would tell you one of the biggest lessons of that short film was you can’t… I could do everything making the animated short but you simply can’t do everything, you have to delegate and you have to trust people and you have to be smart about who you put on the crew. I remember an experience where… I had done a low budget horror film called Wax Work back in the ‘80s. I really liked the costumer on that and I looked him up. And now he had become a big costumer, he has his own warehouse, sort of set up. “Remember me?” He’s like, “Yes, I loved your film.” But when he showed me what he wanted to do with the costumes it was like, “I know writing and I know acting, but it’s like I know nothing about costumes.
He said… okay, so it’s a rich family and a poor family. So the rich family, I’m gonna put them in earth colors. They’re rooted to the earth, they’re pulling power out of the earth. For the poor family I wanna use unnatural colors. I wanna use neon colors, things that are disassociated. And so their color pallet is chaotic. So everything about the rich family is rooted and harmless and the poor family who were living in chaos, my main character was in the poor family. And I’m listening to this and I’m just like, “I could never… it would never had occurred to me in a million years to even think about these stuff. And suddenly the [inaudible 00:24:41] that came into my mind was my arm is 30 feet long. Because of you I am… my reach is massively extended.
It was the same experience with the cinematographer. The ideas… he got the stories so well but I don’t know anything about lenses. I know acting, I know writing, I don’t know lenses. I don’t know cameras, I don’t know editing, I don’t know focal lengths. I had ideas for how I wanted to block thing but the collaboration with him was extraordinarily powerful. And so it was you wanna have your own ideas but then you know what you know and then be clear about what you don’t know and sit back and let people blossom and grow and create. When they talk about it being a collaborative process it’s not just… I would say in a lot of ways it’s not even equal. It’s like the director is even less than because they have whole massive storehouse of skill and history and information and one human being couldn’t possibly gather it all.
So that short film turned out extraordinarily well. It actually got picked up for a DVD compilation by a company in the UK called The [inaudible 00:26:07] Films. So then I knew, okay, I can manage a crew, I can make a short film and I felt ready to start working on making my feature. I felt confident enough that I would head on the right.
Ashley: Yeah, I think that’s great for the audience just to hear. I always think it’s interesting too, so many people that do shorts, they always feel like if they don’t go viral and Harvey Weinstein doesn’t see it and call him in for a meeting it somehow a failure. And I think your experience is exactly the experience which I think most people can really learn a lot. It prepares them and there’s just a certain amount of just that networking and just the confidence going into a feature film with all that confidence. And all this stuff you just described is the real power of the shorts. It’s not having it go viral and wanting you into the stratosphere. It’s really the more nuts and bolts sort of grounded description of what you described.
Christopher: Thank you. And if I can add something too and I think this gets lost a lot of times is it said something I really wanted to say as an artist. It’s like yes I wanna have a big audience. I wanna have as many people here in my communication as possible. But there’s something… as an artist there’s something nourishing about just creating. Yes, you want it to go viral, yes you want millions of people to see it, but your life is also going by. It’s like there’re things you can control and things you can’t control, but it’s like one of the things you can control is your communication as an artist. I look at that film and it’s like I said what I wanted to say and I said it powerfully. I can’t make everybody watch it, but enough people did.
Actually, as I said, it got… short films, it’s very difficult to get distribution for short films. But to not forget your first job as an artist is to create art. Getting people to see it is the second question.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. So let’s dig into your feature film called The Trigger. Maybe to start out you can give us a quick logline or pitch. What is that film all about?
Christopher: So there’s a former hustler, he’s been in jail and he has informed on his drug dealer. He was hustling and selling drugs, so he’s informed on his drug dealer to get an early release. He knows that this is gonna come back and haunt him and destroy him but he just he’s had a horrible home life up to now and he just wants, even if it’s just a day, he wants to get his girlfriend, he wants to get his dog and he wants to get them in an apartment and just feel like this is my family even if it’s just for a moment, and he does do that and then things start going down.
Ashley: Perfect. So where did this idea come from? What was the genesis of this story?
Christopher: I had a ne’er-do-well nephew and he was in… it was Christmas Eve and he was in the Juvenile Detention Centre. This was in Albuquerque and his family had moved to Pennsylvania but he came back to Albuquerque to sell drugs for these people. So I was there visiting him and overhearing these conversations. So we were at like a picnic table, so I’m across from my nephew, my brother and I are across from my nephew and there’s this kid sitting next to me and he’s distraught and he’s having this conversation with his mother and his mother’s saying, “Your dog bit somebody, there’s nothing I can do. They’re gonna come, they’re gonna put the dog to sleep.”
And he’s crying and he’s like, “Could you just hide the dog? Put the dog with Aunt Suzie, put the dog with somebody else until I can get out of here and I’ll take care of it, I’ll make sure…” And she’s like, “I’m not gonna do that.” So you have an hour with the inmates and she stayed… It’s Christmas Eve, she stayed for about 20 minutes and she left. This kid is sitting next to me crying and so I had a conversation with him and afterwards I started to just think about what is his… I let my imagination run wild, like who is this woman, who is this kid, he seemed like a perfectly nice kid. So like how do you end up here? How do you… what does having a mother like that do to you? That was the genesis for the story.
Ashley: Did you get to know him a little bit more? Did you stay in contact or was it just this one episode?
Christopher: No. I would say part of the character is based on him, part of the character is based on my nephew and then just… as a writer I think any of the writers listening to this will know. It’s like you’re moving through life like a magnet and you’re always picking up pieces of metal [laughs]. You’re always picking up pieces of story and at some point they start coalescing. So it was stories from a lot of people that I know, stories from friends, my own experiences and so my life experiences sort of conglomerate into that character.
Ashley: Yeah, perfect. So let’s talk a little bit about your writing process. Just a couple of quick questions. Where do you typically write and when do you typically write?
Christopher: What was the first part?
Ashley: Where do you typically write, do you have like a home office or do you go to a coffee shop, and then when do you typically write? Are you early in the morning, late at night, middle of the night, middle of the day?
Christopher: I do have a home office and that is where I write and generally sometime around 8.00, 9.00 o’clock at night. People have stopped calling, any noise outside is settled down and there’s just the moment where there’s no distraction. I usually write from like maybe nine at night till about three in the morning. That’s my sort of golden moment of no distractions. One of the things that as far as the process goes, I remember reading an interview with Beth Henley and she’s a playwright. She wrote Crimes Of The Heart and she said, “I’d rather drive nails into my head than write.” And I was like, “Argh, you’re so good.” And it’s like it broke my heart that there was so much misery associated with it for her, and I really fight against that.
I do things like I make sure that I associate joy to it. I have a playlist of songs that I listen to when I wanna… Like I have a Hard Rock play list depending on what I’m writing or classical music depending on what I’m writing. But I always have music on that I love. I’ll have like… sometimes I’ll have a bag of candy near the desk so it’s like every page you get a Tootsie Roll. But it’s always like giving my brain some kind of pleasure all the time during the process to make sure… because it is hard. It’s going to the gym hard but when you’re going to the gym you don’t wanna concentrate on its miserable and I hate this place. It’s like you wanna think about I wanna look buff, I wanna look healthy, everyone’s gonna think I’m sexy [laughs].
You keep those thoughts in your mind and then you wanna keep going to the gym. You wanna figure out a way to associate joy with writing all the time, and I mean, in my case has definitely worked because it’s my favorite time. When I can sit down and start working on a story that I’m passionate about telling I’m thrilled. It is not driving a nail into my head, it’s like absolute pleasure.
Ashley: Yeah, perfect. And talk about just the outlining and the preparing versus the actual writing. How much time do you actually spend outlining, maybe doing index cards versus how much time do you actually spend in final draft writing scene descriptions and character descriptions and dialogue?
Christopher: Well, I would… I do spend a lot of time on my… first what I do is I have a structure guide that I created from a lecture from one of my teachers at UCLA Linda Voorhees, so I have what I’ve created a structure work sheet that basically I go through and I use that to create a beat sheet. It’s really just a series of questions like you look at your opening hook. You want your opening hook to raise compelling questions. You want it to resonate with the climax. I don’t know if these are the things that you use but I have some things that an opening hook should do, and so there’s opening hook, there’s the ordinary world and I just think it through and I create a beat sheet out of that structure worksheet. And then from the structure work sheet I write a three defied page treatment.
It’s just basically a short story from what it the story gonna be. And importantly, I learned this in acting. One of my acting teachers said, “Do a massive amount of preparation and once you get on stage forget about all of it because you’re gonna work that other actor is gonna do, you have all your background story, you have all of the power, like he said if you’re an actor and you’re kitten gets run over, you wanna sit in a chair, you wanna feel that kitten in your hand, what color is it? What does the fur on its belly feel like? How much does it weigh? Does it like to be held, does it struggle in your arms? You wanna know that kitten so well so that when it gets run over in the movie you’re like that kitten’s real to you.
After you have all the background and then you gotta… it’s good what shows up and so in writing, I wrote a script about Nikola Tesla and I did a massive amount of preparation. There was a book that was written in the ‘40s, one that was written in the ‘70s and one that was written in the ‘90s. I read all three of these books about him, did an enormous amount of research, did an enormous amount of work on the treatment. But then it was like acting. Once you’re actually into the pages you wanna let the characters talk to you. Don’t be stuck on the treatment, don’t be stuck on the beat sheet, let them talk to you. Let them come to life. Let them surprise you. I think of them almost like ghosts. They’re whispering to you, they have a life of their own.
If you’ve created the background strongly enough, if you’ve made them three dimensional enough in your mind in that background work in your treatment they will start to live and you wanna listen to them and let them go in the direction they wanna go. And I have a lot of students too, they’re very worried like, “Oh, if I write it that way I’m stuck with this.” No, it’s a first draft. You [inaudible 00:38:10] 80% of what you put in your first draft [laughs]. Don’t worry about it, just listen and be in the process and let them run. Let them do the things that they’re gonna do.
Ashley: What does your development process look like? So you’ve written this first draft of the script and we can even talk specifically about The Trigger. Then who did you start to show it to? Do you have a few actor, writer, director friends that you show it to and get notes? Maybe talk through that process and how you handle it.
Christopher: I’m in a screenwriting group, a group of friends that are all screenwriters. We joined together and we meet once a week at a coffee shop on Wednesday nights for about two and a half hours. We all bring 10 pages a week, we read them and we critique each other’s work. It’s also useful in that we also exchange business stuff. So it’s like I entered this contest, I sent my script into x and x contest, I didn’t win but x and x manager from LA asked me to come out for a meeting. So being around writers to discuss art and to discuss business is very powerful. And these guys are… we have assembled quite a good group of not only good writers but good hearted. The kinds of notes that I get are very powerful and very useful and very supportive.
Ashley: How many people are in this group?
Christopher: There’s seven of us. Probably four or five show up every single week. Some people come sometimes and don’t come others but…
Ashley: And then you’re in Austin you said?
Christopher: No, this is in Mesa, Arizona [laughs].
Ashley: Okay, yeah you’re in Arizona. Okay.
Christopher: I teach in Arizona State University but this is in a coffee shop near my house.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. So then what does this look like in terms of getting these notes? You’re going through this process, you’re getting notes and then how do you handle that? And I’m talking sort of just maybe more generically. If there’s something specific with The Trigger that you can use to illustrate that might be good. But how do you handle these notes? You must get some notes that you don’t necessarily agree with, how do you deal with those? You must get some notes that you agree with but maybe feel aren’t quite right for this story. Maybe just talk through some of that process of dealing with the notes and how you handle them.
Christopher: I’m gonna mention Linda Voorhees again. This professor gave me what I think is a brilliant piece of advice which is, “When you’re getting notes, say yes to everything. Write it all down and then… even is it sounds stupid, write it all down, take all the notes and then when you go home it’s like you look at the ones that don’t make sense to you and it’s like, “Why did they… where’s that note coming from?” Because they might not have been able to articulate it well, but they might have a point even if it’s not exactly the note you wanna take but when people bump on something in your story, you wanna pay attention to that, because it’s like if they bumped on it, when you turn it into a contest, you turn it over to a producer, somebody else is probably gonna bump on it too.
I’ll give you a quick example. I wrote a script, it’s kind of a sort of horror movie. It’s a young kid who his father dies and his father remarries and they have another baby and he becomes obsessed with killing this baby. So at one point in the script he goes into the baby’s room and he’s holing a knife in his hand. And the note I kept getting was I’ve lost my identification with the character, I don’t like him anymore. I don’t wanna be on this journey with him anymore. And the way the story went, it’s like that moment had to happen because so many things… it’s like the whole rest of the story built on that moment and so I couldn’t take it out. But I was like, “What I’m I gonna do?” He was also convinced he was possessed by a demon and so there’s a name for Satan which is the lord of the flies.
So what I did was he’s in his bedroom and he’s just like sweating and freaking out and there’s a fly in the room and it keeps flying from him to the door, him to the door, him to the door. So he gets up and he follows it and then he follows this fly through the house and it goes into the kitchen and it lands on the handle of a draw. And he opens the draw and then the fly lands on a steak knife and he picks it up and then he follows it through the house into the bedroom. So then he’s standing there and suddenly it’s like that note went away. It’s like because… he’s having hallucinations as well in the story, so it’s like having it happen that way, having him get there that way gave you some distance and made it so that you could… it’s like you remember that he’s losing his mind.
He may or may not be possessed by a demon but it was a strategy that worked and as I said the note disappeared. So it wasn’t like… I wouldn’t tell a writer, “Just take the note and take the thing out and…” it’s like a combination of it is a good note because I do wanna know if people lose identification with my protagonist. That’s really bad. But you also don’t wanna pull the watch string out of your watch. I would assert there are ways to address notes that don’t undermine the overall structure of your story. And that’s an example of me solving one of those things.
Ashley: Yeah, perfect. For sure. Okay, so once you were done with the script for The Trigger, what were those next steps? How did you bring on a producer and how did you guys raise money to actually go out and shoot this movie?
Christopher: So as I said, I teach screenwriting at ASU and one of my students was a cinematographer. He and I, when he graduated… he was an older student and he and I became friends. And I was ready to start making a feature film and he was doing… he was basically doing local commercials. They’re like casino commercials and we had commercials for boats that you would take to Lake Harvest too and this kind of thing. He was really unsatisfied artistically and he really wanted to make a film. And so I showed him The Trigger and he got very excited and so we started talking about how could we do this. I have a friend that actually has some money and he was the one who actually gave me some money to make The Violation, the short film.
We went to him and the three of us each put in a third of the money. And then again delegating, I knew him, I knew he was a good guy, I knew he was very talented as a cinematographer and he had assembled crews many, many, many times. I was able to delegate to him to get me a crew and then I had a friend who runs a website for actors and I was able to go to her to help me put the cast together. But he’s a really good guy and he’s very… his name is Aden Shabaroni. He’s a good human being and I would say like attracts like. The kinds of people he has around him, the kind of people that he wants to work with are like him. And he’s very calm, thinks on his feet and he and I were already friends. He got me a first AD, his name is Phil Click.
As an actor I had worked with a hundred first ADs. I had never met somebody like this before like. We shot in 18 days, so we were working very, very fast.
Ashley: And in Arizona as well?
Christopher: Yes. He’s incredibly calm so I could to him and go, “I didn’t get what I wanted here, how much time do I have?” He was able to tell me, “You have time for one more take, you have no time left, or you can get another take here if you’re willing to do this entire short scene coming up as a two short.” But he always had three choices. He was always thinking ahead, always had a strategy to make sure that I could get what I needed in the can. I would not have known how to find him, so delegating that to Aden got me this amazing crew. He didn’t know any actors. I was able to go in that direction and handle the casting side of it.
Ashley: I’m curious, especially someone like yourself who’s spent a lot of time as an actor in LA shooting probably all over the country, what do you see as some of the advantages of shooting a low budget film like this in Los Angeles versus the advantage of shooting a low budget film like this in some place like Arizona? Maybe there’re some advantages and disadvantages you might see.
Christopher: Absolutely. So I was very lucky. Because of Aden I was able to get me the cream of the crop crews. There was also an incredible… like how this happened why this happened, I don’t know, but Scott Still Community College has a film school and they are producing amazing technicians. But casting the film was extraordinarily difficult. First of all, just finding actors, period, but finding good actors was very difficult. In LA you have the cream and the crop crew members who are available because there’s just so many people in LA, you’re gonna be able to put a crew together. You can’t throw a rock in LA without hitting a fantastic crew member in the head. Same with acting. Every amazing actor, they’re in LA and so as far as securing talent, LA would be the place to go.
I did bring one actor, my lead young actor I brought him in from LA. He was somebody that I had worked with in The Violation. I brought one actor in from out of town but you to fly them in, you got to fly them in first class and you got to put them in a good hotel. And that gets expensive like bringing a whole LA film cast in would be very expensive. The disadvantages of shooting in LA are permitting… just overall it’s just much more expensive. Hiring the crew is much more expensive. Hiring the actors is much more expensive. What I did… I’m an unapologetic socialist [laughs] but the libertarian aspect of Mesa certainly played to my advantage because I went in to the film office of the Mesa government which was… I think somebody was doing it as a 16th of their job.
I went to meet with them, they gave me a piece of paper, I signed it, they printed something on it, they said, “If the police bother you just show them this.” [laughter]. No [inaudible 00:50:56] nothing, no massive paper work.
Ashley: It was just a [inaudible 00:51:00] permit to film anywhere in Mesa outside, inside, just wherever you did just take it easy.
Christopher: So that was amazing. And the police did show up one time when we were shooting… you know when you’re shooting night shots you’re starting at Sunset and you’re shooting all night. So it was like two, three o’clock in the morning and we were shooting a scene in a parking lot and somebody somehow… Two people are arguing in car and then the car is surrounded by people and somebody said there’s a fight going on in this parking lot and the police showed up, I showed them my piece of paper [laughter]. Being left alone I would say is a big plus and not having to pay the fees is a big plus.
Ashley: One other thing I’ve noticed and I’d be curious to get you as someone who’s shot in Arizona. In LA if you go into a coffee shop or bar and say, “Hey, I wanna shoot here, it’s like, “Great, it’s $5,000 a day. And when you’re in outside of LA people just think it’s cool to have a movie shooting, so you’re much more likely to get a restaurant, they just give you some food or give a location. I had a friend who was in Pennsylvania. He went to the local parks and reckon, the rangers were happy to just let him shoot. If you’re in the LA [inaudible 00:52:22] you need a fire marshal and you need this and you need a policeman and you need all of these safety stuff which obviously has its place. But for low budget guerilla film making this makes it very, very difficult.
Christopher: Yes, absolutely. I used my house for one character’s house and then around the corner, I live in a historic district, so around the corner I have a neighbor. She owns her house and she owns the house next door. One of the things she wanted to avoid is big moves. So we were able to just go around, moving the equipment around the corners is much better than moving it all the way across town. But she was thrilled to… she thought, “Oh my God, this is so much fun in making the movie and all the equipment in her yard [laughs]. She was like in LA it’s like, “Better not [inaudible 00:53:14] you’re gonna pay for that lawn [laughter].” She was just having the time of her life.
One of the bad things though about it’s $5,000 a day so we have a scene set in pizza parlor and there was a pizza parlor. I live near… I told you I live in a historic district so the historic downtown, I think it probably collapsed about 40 years ago when they built some shopping mall. So it’s largely empty but there was a pizza parlor there. And it doesn’t do great business because it’s this ghost town and I went to them and asked them if I could use it and they said yes. So we show up with the cube truck the day we’re shooting, and it’s “Oh, I’m really sorry, I forgot to tell you. We rented it out for a wedding.” [laughter]. It’s like we’re shooting in two hours and I’m like, “What I’m I gonna do?”
So the line producer and I are running up and down mainstream, there’s all these for lease signs, we’re calling leasing companies like can we lease it for the day? And we found, there was another coffee shop down the street and he let us use his coffee shop for $500, which is we hadn’t budgeted for it so it’s a good chunk of change. But he let us be in there basically for all night for two nights and then one day. Again, you described how fun it is, and I still think what 30 years in, I think filmmaking is the most fun thing. When I’m acting I more than once… even recently people go, “Is this your first job [laughter]?” Like, “No, I just really like it [laughter].” And it’s just really fun stuff. In this case they didn’t really understand filmmaking, like how big of a problem they were creating for me by just sort of backing out as we were unloading the lighting equipment. But $500 for two and a half days, you’re not gonna get that anywhere.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. How can people see The Trigger? What is the release schedule gonna be like?
Christopher: It has just been made available on Amazon Prime and if you go to www.thetriggermovie.com, if you don’t have Amazon Prime, if you go to www.thetriggermovie.com there’s a list of other places where you can stream it from.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. I’ll gather all that stuff and round it up for the show notes. And what’s the best way for people to just keep up with what you’re doing? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing I’ll also put in the show notes.
Christopher: So www.thetriggermovie.com is updated regularly. You can go to www.faceook.com/thetriggermovie, that has updates about the film. Interviews, publicity and the things about the film there as well.
Ashley: Perfect. I will round all that up for the show notes. Christopher, I really appreciate your coming on.
Christopher: I’m so happy to have had this conversation with you. You’re a great interviewer [crosstalk].
Ashley: Yeah, fascinating interview. You’re thoroughly entertaining, so this was a great interview. I really appreciate it. Thank you, will talk to you later.
Christopher: Alright. Okay, bye.
Ashley: Okay, 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.
To wrap things up I just wanna touch on a few things from today’s interview with Christopher. He mentioned briefly Syd Field as a book, that Syd Field’s book is one that he read earlier on in his screenwriting career. If you haven’t read that one, definitely check it out. It’s literally called Syd Field’s Screenplay. I think Syd Field has a couple of other books as well but definitely check out Syd Field’s Screenplay if you’ve never read that one. It’s real big on screenplay structure and really kind of boils down to sort of the three act, the very typical three act structure that you find in feature films. Even if you’re not super hang-up on structure, it’s a good overview of how all these kind of works.
So it’s definitely sort of screenwriting 101 that I would recommend to every person who’s starting out as a screenwriter of if you’ve been at this a while and haven’t for whatever reason read it, I would recommend going back and checking that out. I also think it’s interesting he’s been able to find a good group of writers to meet with regularly. I mentioned my own group at the top of this podcast. Like Christopher, I get a lot out of my screenwriting group, so even if you’re not in LA you can probably find other like-minded people in your area and I would really encourage you to do that. It just is a great resource. It’s a great resource of networking and just getting your stuff out there, getting notes, all the stuff. Everything that’s involved with the writers group is just a good thing.
You’re critiquing people’s material that helps your own critical thinking skills, helps you kind of see how other people are coming up with ideas, how they’re executing ideas, just very, very valuable if you really sync in and take part and something like that. One of the other things that I think he said which made so much sense was how he was able to get his SAG card while living and working in Texas. Obviously this is a screenwriting podcast so we’re not necessarily interested in joining SAG or getting a SAG card or anything like that, but I get a tone of emails from all over the world wanting to know how to break into Hollywood. And so often I point out that they might be missing local opportunities.
Making it in Los Angeles isn’t easy. Sure, you’ve got a lot more opportunities here in LA, but nearly every great writer in the world is here, like literally the smartest, most talented writers on the planet earth are here in LA trying to be screenwriters or already are screenwriters. So that’s who you are going to be competing with if you move to Los Angeles. Locally, sure there’s a lot less opportunities, but if you are talented enough to make it in Los Angeles you should have no problem really standing out locally and really maximizing this local opportunities that might exist. And really listen to what Christopher said. By the time he moved to LA he already had a good number of things going for him. That’s what you can do locally too.
You can network a bit. I’m quite sure many local filmmakers know people in Los Angeles and or they might be looking to move to Los Angeles here as well. So if you’re thinking of moving to Los Angeles you might be able to meet someone who is also planning on moving here. You can move out here together, you can get an apartment together, you can share some expenses. That kind of stuff. Obviously that can be a great resource. You can build your resume, having a low budget feature film or a few short films under your belt will put you many, many steps ahead of a lot other people who are rolling into town without any experience whatsoever. So again, just another way you can potentially build your resume and it’s just not gonna be as difficult.
It’s not gonna be that difficult locally as it is in Los Angeles. But mainly, getting this local experience, it will help build your confidence and make moving to Los Angeles seem a lot more real, you’ll be immersed in a film making community. It will feel more like the next logical step instead of the sort of pie in the sky shot in the dark. And believe me, when I moved to Los Angeles, I am not speaking from experience here, I am speaking from… I’m not speaking from how I did it, I’m speaking for how I think I probably would have been smarter doing it. I get out of college and I just moved here. And there is something to be said for that because you don’t necessarily have any responsibilities, you hopefully don’t have a ton of debt, you can just pack up, you can move here.
You don’t have children, you don’t have maybe a spouse. So those things are maybe a little bit easier. There’s definitely some of that and if that’s the position you’re in, fantastic. But if you’re not in that position for whatever reason financially you have family obligations, whatever, you can’t move to Los Angeles immediately, that might be okay. Take advantage of those local opportunities. Network locally, find that filmmaking community in your local area and all of that can really help as a spring board to moving to Los Angeles. And again, doing these local opportunities, it will ultimately make it more likely that you will actually move here eventually because again, you’ll have that confidence, you’ll have that experience and will feel much more like a next logical step.
It can be these local opportunities can be a great low stress, low risk way of starting to build a screenwriting career. So don’t overlook them if you can find out how to network with these people. Definitely take that seriously.
Anyway, that’s the show, thank you for listening.