This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 296: Screenwriter Mark Leidner Talks About Living Far From Hollywood And His Latest Sci-Fi / Thriller, Empathy, Inc..

Ashley: Welcome to Episode #296 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at Today I’m interviewing Atlanta based writer Mark Leidner. He just wrote a cool Sci-Fi thriller script called Empathy Inc. He’s a great example of a writer living far from Hollywood who’s getting movies made. This is his second feature and he’s done it all without an agent or a manager and of course living way, way, way far away from Hollywood. 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 me a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook.

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So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer Mark Leidner. Here is the interview.

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

Mark: Thank you Ashley, I’m happy to be here.

Ashley: So to start out maybe you can just give us a quick overview of your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?

Mark: I grew up in South Georgia in a small town called Tifton and I went to school at the University of Georgia, and then I went to a couple of different grad schools in English and Creative Writing. It took me a very long time to even begin thinking about film, but after grad school, basically I’m an English teacher. A friend of mine in grad school, we started to go to a lot of movies and review them and we kind of… like one year we went to 70 movies in the theater. That’s pretty… I mean, that was a lot for us. And we wrote about all of them. So we would each write a review and they would be kind of a Siskel and Ebert type of dynamic.

Ashley: Was this on a blog, you started a blog or something?

Mark: Yeah, it was a blog. And we went to grad school for poetry, so we were writing about film but from a totally left field, not in industry. Just writing for poets and to poets and to our friends. By doing that I realized I really… I always knew I loved movies, but at some point I was like here I am judging these movies and slamming them for not being good, the writing is bad or the writing is great. And I was like, what if I could… maybe I could try that. So I just started to just try to write screenplays. This is in Western Massachusetts. I’d never even met anyone who worked in film. I entered a Craig’s List ad one summer for a guys who wanted to make a short film and we made a horrible short film. He then called me like three years later and said, “I’m gonna make a feature, do you wanna help me write it?”

Ashley: [00:03:55 inaudible]


Mark: I was like, “Well, I just finished my second grad school and now I need something new to do, so… We made our first film together and we learned a lot. None of us had gone to film school and we were very proud of what we made, given the fact that we were complete outsiders to film. Three years later we made a second film.

Ashley: And that’s Empathy Inc. which we’re gonna talk about today. I wanna go back just quickly. You I think somewhat tongue in cheek said you made a horrible short. Clearly that experience was not so… One of my big things on this podcast is encouraging people to just get out there and do stuff like shorts. And don’t be afraid to make a horrible short. I think this is a prime example where it actually did lead to something. Yes, you guys went out there and made a horrible short, but you remained friends and you both wanted to get better. There was some connection, you must have seen something in him and he must have seen something in you, where there’s enough of ambition or just trust that hey, we made a horrible short but we can continue to move on with our careers.

Mark: That’s exactly what happened and my first advice to anybody who wants to make movies or write them is just to try and make it and know it won’t be good and… because what we found is that although our script and our casting process and our shooting, everything imploded, we didn’t ever even get close to finishing, but we liked working together. And he was really good at the kind of spread sheet work that you need to manage. I mean, he was our producer- Josh. And I was good at like, “Well, I don’t know what to do, maybe I’ll just try to write something.” So I could definitely write without fear. It ended up not being good but I think he like that about me and I liked what he could do about him. And we got along, so we worked together again later.

Ashley: Yeah, perfect. Okay, so let’s move into Empathy Inc. and kind of talk through that project. Maybe to start out you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is that film all about?

Mark: Sure. It’s a business man gets an opportunity to invest in a revolutionary virtual reality start up that offers you a virtual reality that is realer than anything anybody has ever seen. He’s really desperate to be successful but he doesn’t have any money so he sinks all his in laws… he convinces his in laws to invest in this VR start up and the promise of the company is that they have really good tech and they also have a noble intention to allow the rich to experience what it’s like to be poor. In order to achieve this kind of pay as you go enlightenment or empathy with people who have less than you. So he invests his in laws money in that and he learns fairly quickly that what they’re up to, what the company he’s sunken his in laws resources into is [00:07:01 inaudible] and the virtual reality isn’t really virtual.

Ashley: I got you. Where did this idea come from, what was the genesis of the story?

Mark: The director Yedidya Gorsetman and I, we knew we wanted to make a second movie and he was really into a particular kind of movie. We were just pitching back and forth for about six months. We’d come up with five ideas, we’d try them off on each other. He really liked movies like Wall Street and The Firm or The Wolf Of Wall Street. Movies about a guy who makes a lot of money and then has a fall. He really loves that genre. And I was more of a Sci-Fi nerd and I was like, “I want a time machine. I want something mind bending.” So this movie was kind of… I came up with it because I was trying to come up with a Sci-Fi plot device that would allow me to get my director really excited to tell a story about a business man’s rise and fall.

Ashley: Yeah, that’s fascinating. I’m curious too, when you made your first short, did you start to get some feedback, whether it be film festivals, distributors, that maybe impacted you at all in terms of choosing this story? Was there anything business wise? Because as you pitched that to me, one of the things I hear a lot, especially in the low budget real, you know, grounded Sci-Fi is a great genre. It plays well overseas. So just as you’re pitching that my thought process is that, hey, that’s actually a pretty marketable genre for a low budget movie. Everybody thinks horror is the marketable genre but it’s so oversaturated. But an intelligent grounded Sci-Fi like what you’re describing here seems like something you could find distribution. And I’m curious how much of that impacted you as opposed to just this thing of getting the director interested.

Mark: That’s a great question and it’s very astute. The short that I briefly mentioned as bad, that didn’t even get to the editing room. But the feature that we made together as a team, me, Josh and Yedidya, it was a comedy and it had no stars. And we were proud of what we created and we were really proud of the cast and the crew and what we did, but it was utterly unmarketable because it’s a comedy with no stars. We had many distributors who we would try to show it to and they would say, “Oh, it’s a comedy with no stars, we’re not interested.” I don’t even care what the logline is.” So, maybe a lot of people know that already, but we certainly didn’t because we were not in the business.

So from that, the director and I, we were like, “Whatever we do next is going to have some kind of science fiction, thriller or horror. We knew we wanna do to be in the ballpark of a high stakes genre story. And honestly we tried a million ways to come up with a horror plot that both appealed to us that we felt very confident in, and we came up with some but this was just our best idea. So we just ended up in Sci-Fi and I thought, “Well, it’s got high stakes and it’s got drama, so it won’t be a comedy. And I like Sci-Fi. I like to google Top 10 Low Budget Sci-Fi Movies of 2018 or 2019, and I’ll watch all of them because I’m curious and I like those movies. So I was like well, at least there’ll be one person maybe out there like me who’ll actually buy this if it ever is released.

Ashley: And a follow up, the obvious follow up question to that, give us like one or two of just the best low budget Sci-Fi films you’ve ever seen for our audience maybe to go and track those down. There must be some that stand out as really excellent low budget examples.

Mark: Okay, so there’s the obvious ones like Primer or Pie. Those were two big kind of reference points for me and Yedidya the director. If you even care about low budget Sci-Fi I’m sure you’ve probably seen those maybe multiple times. So other ones that I really liked, there’s this movie called… I forget it but it’s like the Oldest Man In The World or The 10,000 Year Old Man. It’s on Amazon, I’m botching the title but it’s basically about a guy who is… he’s been alive since the dawn of time and he never ages so every time his friends start to age up and notice that he’s not aging he has to move on because his secret is why he’s really, really old. And the whole movie is super high concept. It full of just mind bending reveal after mind bending reveal but it’s all set in his living room.

As his friends come over and try to confront him and say, “Why are you moving?” And he tells them this long story. And so that one is not a perfect movie but I thought in terms of getting the biggest possible idea into the smallest amount of space, it’s really marvelous. Another one I’ll briefly mention I loved is called The Battery and it was a horror movie. It’s a zombie flick but it’s just two guys who were minor league baseball players, just like a pitcher and a catcher in a minor league baseball team when the zombie apocalypse happened. And they don’t really like each other but they’re on the same team. Now they’re kind of trapped in the woods while trying to dodge the zombies. I thought it was really a marvelous, super low budget, well done zombie movie. So yeah, I love those kinds of stories.

Ashley: Yeah. Well, perfect. I’ll try and track down The 10,000 Year Old Man and put that in the show notes. But definitely The Battery, I’ll try and check that one out. So let’s talk about the writing of Empathy Inc. Just some quick questions to start. Where do you typically write? Are you writing in your home office, you go down to Start Bucks where there’s people mingling around? What is your sort of standard set up?

Mark: I can write in a café or at home. I usually just get up in the morning really early and write like until lunch and then I’ll eat and if I have nothing to do that’s my day. I’d love to go to a coffee shop everyday but it’s too expensive, so I’ll write at home and… I don’t care where I am as long as I have a laptop and coffee. That’s all I need.

Ashley: Got you. When do you typically write? Sounds like you just write in the morning. If you have a day off can you do 12, 15, 16 hour stretches of writing? Is there a point where the productivity start to go down for you?

Mark: Yeah, it goes down pretty quick. The mornings are my best time and so I’ll write all morning until I’m completely burned out and my brain can’t look at a screen anymore and so then I’ll eat lunch and exercise or garden or run errands or whatever. I’ll come back to it late afternoon and at that point I’m running at about 50% efficiency. So I’ll go for like an hour or two, unless I have a big deadline or there’s something really exciting happening and I wanna push through but usually it’s just the morning.

Ashley: Yeah. So how much time do you spend outlining versus actually in final draft writing scene descriptions and dialogue?

Mark: Well, I have only made two features and these are the features that I wrote and then helped produce. And it’s really just dependent on my team. I feel like I could be many different kinds of writers but in my limited experience we always… we outline the shit out of something because we don’t have any resources and we need to really, really, really know we’re gonna have a high confidence when we start to write the script. So we outline for a long time and with Empathy for example we probably outlined for… I don’t know, anywhere from four to six months. I can’t remember. Then we finally sat down in the same room and were opening first draft and the final draft to write the first real draft and that probably took like a week to get one draft. And then the second drafts was… It was like two weeks and we had a draft that we could send out to potential investors and actors or whatever.

Ashley: Yeah. But it’s because you had spent so much time with the outline that you were really prepared going on.

Mark: Absolutely. It was very elaborate.

Ashley: And so what does the outlining step look like? You’re sitting in the same room with the director, you’re putting index cards on a card board? What does it actually look like?

Mark: Well, we don’t live in the same place, so usually the outline is step one is we’ll have a one paragraph summary of the whole movie that we both agree is tight. I’ll write a one pager and then I’ll show it to Yedidya  the director and he’ll give me notes and then I’ll write a 10 pager and then I’ll write a 40 pager. And it just keeps building out with more and more detail and every time there’s a new draft he’s giving tones of notes and I’m like, “This doesn’t make sense, this does, this is too long, this is too short.” Sometimes I’ll be like, “You do the next draft.” I’m sort of in control of the drafting process as the writer but he’s very much involved. So by the time we sit down we’ve argued about everything usually.

Ashley: Okay. Let’s talk about that just for a minute, because this is another thing that I think screenwriters are ill prepared for as they actually become professionals. How do you handle those moments where you don’t see eye to eye with the director? Is there a way of having… it sounds like you have this producer Josh, maybe you get he’s the vote that changes things. But how do you get past those moments where you just don’t see eye to eye on something?

Mark: Well, in one sense we’re very lucky because we’re the only people we’ve ever made stuff with, this director and I. So ultimately, we’re really close friends too. I really trust him and if he’s really adamant about something I just decide, okay, I don’t agree but I’m just gonna trust that he’s right on this point. And I’ve had to make those decisions sometimes and it’s really painful for me as an egomaniac who wants to control everything, but it’s usually paid off. But I don’t give in very easily, I will argue every single… I go into like full lawyer mode. Here are my 18 bullet points why I’m right and you’re wrong, and he’ll listen to all of them and [00:17:50 inaudible] as many of them as he can. Usually one of us is swayed.

But I think what allows us to go into detail and really argue without any kind of personal feelings getting involved is that we are friends. And another advantage I think that we have is we both have lives outside of making a film and we have careers outside of that. Ultimately, we don’t have to make another movie in order… if we don’t make another movie it’s not the end of the world. So we really are choosing to do this because we like to hang out and we like to do it. And I would imagine if this was your career, I don’t really have any experience if someone’s writing me cheques and is giving me terrible notes at the same time they write cheques to me, I don’t know what to do with that because I’ve never been paid like that.

Ashley: I got you. Okay, so you guys, you had a script that you like after two weeks. What were the next steps to actually raising money? Is that more of Josh’s part, you give the script to him and then he goes out and tries to raise money? Maybe you can just give us kind of an overview of like what does that look like for a couple of guys, you’re living on the east coast. How do you go out and raise money for something like this when you don’t have like a long track record as filmmakers?

Mark: Our ability to raise money is very dependent on our circle of friends and friends of friends and people who we know. Now, Yedidya  the director, he lives in New York and Josh the producer used to live in New York, so they kind of had more access to some movie film adjacent or film friendly people there who they knew through family or friends. And we just reach out to people. And like it was always like let’s first estimate how much money we could raise if we had a really great product to pitch, or something to interest people. And whatever that is, that’s our budget. So if we can’t write into that budget we’re never gonna… we’re not in the business of going out and finding “Smart money or real money” and waiting for that to come in before we make something.

We were always like, “You know, someone has made a movie for $7,000 before. Someone has made a movie for $20,000 before. Why not us?” So we wait around until we have an idea that we think is executable, given what we can raise, and then we just start asking people and showing them the script and it’s still a waiting process and sometimes we come in under what we thought and sometimes we have come in over what we thought. But Josh the producer, he’s not as much the fundraising type of producer. He’s more of the project manager. Once we’ve got funding he becomes our kind of like foundation of the show.

Ashley: I get you. So what’s next for you? What are you guys working on now?

Mark: We have a couple basically finished scripts that we’ve been doing because we had so few resources. We finished shooting Empathy a long time ago and it took us over a year to edit and basically time was our resource, so we were very patient and we took a lot of time and now it’s finally coming out. But in that time we’ve also been brainstorming and outlining and we’ve got a good solid genre idea and we’ve got kind of a… these are not pitchable, so please don’t ask me what the loglines are [laughs]. And we also have a low budget drama we could do if we ever got a good actor we might be able to… if we got a famous person to like the script we can do. So we’ve got some options and we’re very genre agnostic. We love Sci-Fi because we just made a Sci-Fi movie but we pitch each other all kinds of stories and we’re happy to do anything that would work within our constraints.

Ashley: I got you. Perfect. How did you guys find a distributor for Empathy Inc.? Did you go to film festivals, did you just submit to them directly, did you have some personal connections?

Mark: We submitted to some genre festivals. We submitted especially, the most important perhaps one that we submitted to was Cinepocalypse in Chicago. That’s a genre festival that is kind of new and exciting but fairly fun, and through that we got in, they really loved our movie. We didn’t know if anyone was gonna like it. Through that we found a sales agent and then we continued to show at certain festivals but our sales agent was kind of working the rest of those festivals to help us and he hooked us up with our distributor. Yeah.

Ashley: How can people see Empathy Inc., do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?

Mark: Well, today is August 29th and on Friday September 6th it will play at the Laemmle Theater in Glendale.

Ashley: Yeah, okay, Laemmle is in Glendale.

Mark: Yeah, Laemmle.

Ashley: Yeah, no it’s okay. I think it’s an LA thing at the Laemmle’s.

Mark: Got you. It’s gonna open there on the 6th, Friday the 6th of September. Then a week later it will be in Philly, Columbus Ohio, Brooklyn, maybe some other places. And then at the end of the month, maybe two weeks after that it will be online, you know, Amazon, iTunes probably whatever it is.

Ashley: Perfect. What’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing I’ll round up for the show notes.

Mark: Well, my Twitter is my name and that’s Mark Leidner, and our movie, we post updates to all the great reviews that we are actually getting and release information about the movie if you just google Empathy Inc. Film. I think its Empathy Inc. Film. It might be Empathy Movie, I should know that, I run this account.

Ashley: Know worries, I’ll find it and I’ll put it in the show notes so people can just click over to it.

Mark: Thanks a lot.

Ashley: Well Mark, I appreciate this. This sounds like a cool film and I wish you all the [00:24:18 inaudible]  I hope it does really great and I look forward to talking to you again with your next film.

Mark: Thank you Ashley, I enjoy your show.

Ashley: Thank you. Will talk to you later.

Mark: Okay, bye.

Ashley: 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 they wanna produce. Dozens of producers are in the system looking for screenplays right now. There have been a number of success stories come out of this service. You can find out about all the SYS Select successes by going to Also on SYS Podcast Episode #222. I talk with Steve Deering who was the first official success story to come out of the SYS Select database.

When you join SYS Select you get success to the screenplay database along with all the other services that we’re providing to SYS Select members. These services include the Newsletter, the monthly newsletter goes out to a list of over 400 producers who are actively seeking writers and screenplays. Each SYS Select member can pitch one screenplay in this monthly newsletter. We also provide screenwriting leads. We have partnered with one of the premiere paid screenwriting leads services 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 10 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, features, TV and web series, pilots- all types of projects. If you sign up for SYS Select you get these leads emailed directly to you several times per week. Also you 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. We also have a number of screenwriting classes that are recorded and available in the SYS Select forum. These are all the classes that I’ve done over the years. So you’ll have access to those whenever you want once you join.

The classes cover every part of writing your screenplay from concept to outlining to the first act, second act, 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’d like to learn more about please got to

On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing writer director duo Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. They wrote the hugely successful film A Quiet Place, which is actually available right now through Amazon Prime if you haven’t seen it. It’s a well done film, definitely worth checking out. Brian and Scott are back with a new film called Haunt, so we dig into that film, how that came about as well as talking specifically about A Quiet Place, and kind of how their career got started and led up to that point, 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 Mark. Lots of interesting things were discussed in this interview. I thought it was interesting how Mark wanted to get his director excited, so he built this Sci-Fi story which was what he was interested in, but then also incorporated this business setting that he knew the director liked. Film is so much about collaboration. It’s so important to keep everyone involved, everyone engaged, everyone excited about the project, especially the director. But especially on a low budget film like this, it’s gonna take a lot of work, there’s not gonna be a lot of money involved, so it’s all about the passion and just being in love with this project.

So really being thoughtful about that stuff is worth really considering, and again just at all levels of your career you’ve got to be self-aware and sort of understand who else is gonna collaborate on this project, and how are you gonna get them excited about it. In general I think this is a great attitude to have if you wanna be a writer and not a director, especially if you wanna be a writer and not a director. As screenwriters, unless you wanna direct, the film is never gonna be your vision. It’s going to be put through a meat grinder with director, with actors, with producers, potentially a studio financier, so it’s just gonna be a lot of people that are kind of pushing this around, trying to get their two cents in. That’s just how it works.

I mean, it’s collaboration, there’s a lot of money involved when you’re gonna go upscale a little bit, and the more people are involved the more money. Just the more process [00:28:51 inaudible] to this project. So being aware early in the process and making sure that you’re giving the director something that he’s invested in means you’ll have an early ally to help you realize as much of your vision as possible as it goes through this meat grinder. Even a low budget film like this where there’s not a studio or development executive giving notes, there’s gonna be lots of compromises with actors, with locations, with props, with costumes. Ultimately just with the budget and not being able to afford everything you want for the production.

So again, just having a good attitude where you realize this is a collaborative medium and you make an effort to work within the constrains you have, and making an effort to keep everybody engaged, everybody on the production interested and engaged is just gonna make the whole process a lot easier, you’re gonna be happier, you’re gonna get more of your vision ultimately in that finished product. These business lessons are also I feel very valuable. Listen to what he said about the comedy with no cast. It’s just not something that you can actually sell unless you capture lighting in a bottle. Of course there’re exceptions to these, of course there’re low budget comedies that went on to do really well, whether it be film festivals, they found distributors and stuff.

So of course there’re exceptions but think about this, you never had of the comedy film that he did because it didn’t get a distributor. And so, there are some shiny examples of comedies with no cast making a big name for themselves. But those are really the exceptions and the thing is is we don’t hear about the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of films that get made that don’t get distribution, and here’s a prime example. His previous film did not find distribution was exactly what he’s saying, is that he would find distributors that simply didn’t wanna do it, simply because there was no cast. Again, really think these things through. Last week I had a talk to the director of Ode To Joy, go and have a look at that film.

That is a comedy but there actually is some cast. Certainly, it’s not a big studio film, it’s not a 50 million dollar studio film, but that film Ode to Joy did have some cast. And that’s what a film like that needs to kinda get distribution to kinda make it into these various distribution platforms. It might feel like I’m recommending making all sorts of artistic compromises here, but that’s really not what I’m doing. And I think Mark is a great example of that. He didn’t just write something that he thought he could sell. He wrote something that he and the director were both excited about, and they thought that they could potentially sell it. Maximizing the potential of the product but also doing something that is creatively fulfilling. I think that’s a great lesson, and I think that’s what really we should all be striving to do.

This idea of sort of creating something in a vacuum without keeping some of these business decisions in mind I just think is a recipe for disaster, because you’re gonna need a few films. You’re probably gonna need to make a few shorts. You may need to make a few feature films. You may need to sell a few scripts. And I would really kind of include myself in that. The first few scripts that I sold, Dish Dog is a prime example of that. It really got rewritten a lot, it got changed a lot, and I think part of that was the fact that me and the other writer, we didn’t consider the sort of… and I’m saying me [00:32:03 inaudible] and that sounded very negative connotations, but it’s kind of what it is. We didn’t consider this meat grinder that we were gonna have to go through.

And so what happened was the director and the producers and potentially maybe even some of the actors, they went and they started to rewrite our script. But if we had been a little bit more conscientious earlier on in the process, we might have been able to avoid some of that. It’s hard to explain again until you’ve kinda gone through it, but I just really liked Mark’s attitude here. It’s one of compromise, it’s one of being reasonable and not just all about his artistic vision, “I wanna see my artistic vision.” There is some compromise that ultimately we have to make if we wanna be successful in this business. But again, we’re doing this as a creative pursuit, so keeping in mind that creative fulfilment is also a big part of that, and just understanding all of these various inputs, putting them in their proper place, but still considering them

Anyway, that’s the show, thank you for listening.