This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 302: Writer/Director Henry Alex Rubin Talks About His New Action/Drama, Semper Fi.

Ashley: Welcome to Episode #302 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at Today I’m interviewing writer- director Henry Alex Rubin, who made a name for himself with the documentary, Murder Ball. He just wrote and directed a new film called Semper Fi, which we will be discussing today. 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. 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.

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

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

Henry: Thanks for having me.

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?

Henry: I am half French and my mother’s French and my father is American. My mother teaches French to young kids and my father’s an art historian who’s been teaching at Cooper Union in SUNY Stony Brook for a long time. And so I’m sort of a duality. I’m half European and half American, but when it comes to the entertainment industry I guess I never really thought of it as that because I studied documentaries, which is more like the intellectual I suppose, the intellectual, non-money making side of the entertainment business. I fell in love with making documentaries when I was at Columbia as a student. I took a class on documentaries and I just… I fell in love with a movie called The [inaudible 00:04:00].

I’d never seen a movie that was that riveting and also used elements of fictional film making in it. That sent me spinning and for a few years I just made documentaries. I was determined that documentaries were the highest [inaudible 00:04:24] form of filmmaking that you could do. I eventually… at Columbia I met a guy named James Mangold, who was a very successful director, made a bunch of movies, Heavy was his first film, Corp Land, which I worked on, Girl Interrupted, which I worked on, a kind of humor. He did Logan and recently now he has Ford versus Ferrari. Jim was very encouraging and always… Jim Mangold was always very encouraging and he always told me, “You know, you should branch out and make fiction, not just documentaries. You don’t wanna stay an obscure intellectual for the rest of your life.” So I eventually tried my hand at it. Yeah.

Ashley: Let’s talk briefly about Murder Ball for a moment. This was… and I think it’s interesting kinda getting your perspective because this was a big documentary hit. Maybe you can talk through that process. I’m always curious, how did that film get distribution? Did you enter it into festivals, did you find a distributor, did you just cold call some distributors? Maybe just talk about that just briefly.

Henry:  Sure. I’d had a connection to Cinetic Media, which is John Sloss’s company, and there was a guy there named Micah Green, and those guys who helped me with my documentaries, Who Is Henry Jaglom and also my documentary called Freestyle. And so when I needed money to make Murder Ball, my partner Daniel and I went to [inaudible 00:05:58] can you help us?” And he said, “Make a trailer. Make a two minute trailer [inaudible 00:06:04]. That’s how we got the funding for Murder Ball. We sat a little bit on our own time, cut a two minute trailer together and based on the back of the strength of those two minutes we got a couple of a hundred thousand dollars to complete the film.

That’s how we made that movie. How it got seen was a sort of a rather unlikely Cinderella tale of going to Sundance, it winning Audience Award, MTV Films happens to be there, they say we wanna distribute it and then we got distributed. But a lot of I think the success of that documentary was just word of mouth.

Ashley: And was there a tipping point in that? I know these things too, when you’re going through them they seem a lot less clear than now we see it 15 years later, knowing the outcome. But was there a tipping point when you were going through this process where you thought, “Okay, this movie actually is gonna get seen. It’s gonna get seen by a wide audience.”

Henry:  That’s a great question [inaudible 00:07:07] never know. As a film maker, you have your necessary delusions that keep you going day to day, and those delusions are people are gonna see this movie.

Ashley: [laughs] Yeah.

Henry: You tell yourself, “People are gonna see this movie,” and then if you’re in a particular delusional state you’re like, “People are gonna see it and love it!” And you need that to keep going. You have to believe in that. And of course the other side of that, the other side or the other end is crickets and heart break. And that happens for everybody, even some of the greatest filmmakers who thought that they were making master pieces and then they weren’t well received. I think that’s just part of the process being a filmmaker. You need that delusion.

Ashley: Yeah, for sure. Let’s talk about that transition. So then you’ve done a bunch of documentaries, James Mangold’s telling you to try and do some narrative features and stuff, what was that transition like going from a background in documentary filmmaking with some success behind you, and then trying to make that transition into fictional films.

Henry:  The thing that bridged them both is that after Murder Ball a lot of commercial production companies invited me to join them to make commercials. And I chose to be with a company called Smuggler [inaudible 00:08:26] is that production company that is dedicated to making mostly commercials but we also make lots of PSA’s. In fact I love making PSA’s. We usually make one or two a year. Almost like a law firm does pro-bono work we do PSAs alongside big funded commercials to get certain messages out. For example last week I made a PSA about four of the families of the Sandy Hook- the Sandy Hook foundation which got picked up by presidential candidates and retweeted and that was sort of a message about how to sport signs in people who are unstable and might be a threat to you at schools.

I loved doing… that was sort of a hybrid documentary, fiction piece. I loved exploring documentary and fiction and the style of the merger of the two. Like I said earlier, one of my favorite documentaries of all time was Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line. And so a lot of the commercials I’ve made over the years have merged a documentary feel with a fictional narrative, whether they are [inaudible 00:09:42] or commercials for Adidas or [inaudible 00:09:46] or what not. And so I felt this sort of became my niche. There was one ad that did very well a few years ago, which was just a… it was Derek Jeter’s last day playing of at the Yankee Stadium.

And so the advertising agency concocted this idea that he would tell his chauffer to just stop like 10 blocks before Yankee Stadium, and he would hop out and then just walk like to really enjoy his last walk to Yankee Stadium. And we shot it kind of like for real, and people flipped out, they came after him, they were like cheering and, you know, like, “Jeter!” It was a really wonderful feeling and that… I ended up doing a lot of ads like that that feel real, even though they’re sort of directed as well. And so I did at least five years of ads before I felt, “Well, maybe I could make a fiction movie.” I don’t know the real rules of fiction filmmaking like the reverse shot, like the wide shot establishes everything. I’m much more like set up two cameras [inaudible 00:10:55] and shoot.

That’s where I come from production-wise, but I applied that to my first narrative film Disconnect, and if you watch it you’ll see it’s very much like free flow, two long length cameras the whole time. And like some of my favorite directors [inaudible 00:11:12] some of those [inaudible 00:11:16] do tend to be more documentarian or more eaves drop, like people like early [inaudible 00:11:22] or Ken Loach. I love his movies, I love… obviously I love John Cazale. And another one, Robert Hoffman is someone I admire too. When you watch their movies they seem like the Ebb and Flow and people talk over each other and it feels kind of real in a way in which most movies feel very much like very static and very set up and very lit and very perfect.

I like things that feel a little crooked and misshapen. A little bit more natural if that makes any sense.

Ashley: Yeah, no it does. What was the process, did you start to write some screenplays, did you start to option screenplays, did you then take them to your agent? What is the actual process of going from documentarian to director of a narrative feature?

Henry: My first fiction feature was called Disconnect. That was done by Will Horberg, great producer who had produced a movie with Matt Damon and Jude Law…

Ashley: [inaudible 00:12:38].

Henry: No, Talented Mr. Ripley he’d done.

Ashley: Okay.

Henry: And so he was an amazing producer who came to me and said, “Hey, I’ve been watching your sort of quality documentaries, fictional work for the past few years in commercials. I think that this film would benefit from an eavesdrop quality like that. And so he came to me with this job with the scripts and was… [inaudible 00:13:11] as you see fit and Mickey Lidell financed it and we made the film with some wonderful ensemble cast, Andrea Riseborough, Jason Bateman, Paula Patton, Alexander Skarsgård, Hope Davis, and it was like sort of like this documentary about three, four different stories that all had to do with our connection or our relationship rather to technology, and it was sort of that film we tried to make it feel very much like an eavesdropped experience when you watch the performances and everything.

I would often just ask the cast to throw the script away and just improvise on the basis of what was on the page and I found sometimes much better results that way than if you just read the script perfectly. It’s always about trying to… what I’m always attempting is to try to find truth when you’re in a very contrived situation because the set is always contrived. You have all these people standing around and all the lights are in a certain direction and you’re trying to find in a very contrived atmosphere something truthful, something real among all that falseness. And script often when you read them out loud they sound great, but when you start having actors actually act them out, they just sound like you’re watching a TV show or something. You’re watching something false.

So I’m constantly [inaudible 00:14:58] obstacles in front of me  even if it’s like body wipes with people crossing in front of the camera when you’re on long lens, remember movies like the conversations, constantly body wipes like people crossing and so for one second you don’t see your actors. Like where are they, are they there or like the camera shakes or the camera moves to find them and they when they stumble over their lines or when they find their lines or when they talk over each other it just someway has a tendency to feel a bit more captured rather than acted, which is just something personally that I like.

Ashley: Yeah. So let’s dig into your latest film Semper Fi. To start out, maybe you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is this film all about?

Henry:  The film is about a bunch of friends who grow up together and one of them gets into some trouble and gets thrown into jail and they try to figure out how to get him out basically.

Ashley: I get you. Were you ever in the marines?

Henry: I wasn’t. I have friends who were, who were part of First Marine [inaudible 00:16:08] went into Iraq first during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Also my co-writer Shawn Mowen served in the US military and was an army captain, [inaudible 00:16:23] captain. And so collaborating with him and being around friends who’d been in the service and we tried to get their voice right, to capture their voices.

Ashley: Where did this idea come from, what was sort of the kernel or the genesis of this idea?

Henry: He brought up Murder Ball a long time ago when I was shooting Returning War Vets at Walter Reed Hospital. I met a few of them and I heard a story that became the kernel of this movie. And if you… when you watch it you’ll see there’s a whole film plot played by Finn Wittrock which is directly linked to a true story that I heard when I was interviewing folks. So this idea started a long time ago, about 10 years ago. Shawn and I wrote the script, I had to get it made, failed and put it away, put it on the shelves.

Ashley: Was it something you guys would drag out every once in a while and pitch it to people or it was just sitting on the shelf for those 10 years?

Henry: No, it sat on the shelf, Shawn and I wrote a number of others scripts during that and I think I mentioned earlier that Micah Green, who is now CAA where I am a client, Micah says, “Hey, you know I met a financier the other day and [inaudible 00:18:04] they were asking me about a certain type of movie and I sent them Semper Fi. “I hope that’s okay.” They said, “Of course.” And then to Shawn and I [inaudible 00:18:18] They said, “Hey, we’d love it. We wanna make this.” So at that point Shawn and I dusted it off, said, “Okay, we’d better take a look at this seriously here and see if it still makes sense. Is it still feeling modern? Does it still feel like a story about all the issues that we’re grappling with as a nation in 2005?

We did a rewrite to make it a bit more… to upgrade it, make it a bit more contemporary, but it still grapples with a lot of the same issues that we were dealing with in 2005, it’s just we had a bit more hindsight now. And hopefully the story is timeless, hopefully the brother story is timeless.

Ashley: How can people see Semper Fi, do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?

Henry:  Yes. It’s in selected theaters on October 4th and it also goes simultaneously to I believe, I hope I got this right, Amazon Prime and iTunes. I think it’s online for a certain amount of time.

Ashley: Okay, 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 will round up for the show notes.

Henry:  Yeah. I mean, I don’t really have… I’ve never gotten on Twitter and I should. I am on Instagram, I’m just Henry Alex. Henry Alex is my handle on Instagram and I do post things here and there, but I really appreciate you giving a movie any kind of shout out because as you know, with small and independent films, it’s all about whether one writer or one cinephile enjoyed it and then speaks to others. Like you said it’s like someone just handing out… it’s like back when we had [inaudible 00:20:13] and you’re [inaudible 00:20:17] that you trust behind the counters like, “You gotta see this.” That’s how I used to watch movies.

Ashley: Well Henry, I really appreciate you taking some time out today to come and talk with me. Good luck with this film and good luck with all your future films as well.

Henry:  Thank you.

Ashley: Thank you, will talk to you later.

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 the writer- director duo Henry Jacobson and Avra Fox Lerner. They just did a film called Bloodline, starring Seann William Scott. We’ll dig into that film and how it all came together, so keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s the show, thank you for listening.