This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 344: With Writer/Director Eric Bress.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #344 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing writer-director, Eric Bress. He wrote a number of big budget horror films, including Final Destination II and The Butterfly Effect, and now he’s moved into directing as well. We talk a bit about his backstory and how he broke into the business, and then we talk about his new World War II horror film, Ghosts of War. 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.
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 #344. 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 a screenplay in that guide. I’ll teach you how to write a professional logline and query letter and how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. Really, it’s everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing writer-director, Eric Bress. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Eric to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Eric: Thanks for having me on.
Ashley: So to start out, maybe you could tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Eric: I grew up in New York in Westchester County, the suburbs, and ever since I was a kid, I would walk around with my friends and constantly make little soundless shorts or just weird images. I was doing animation before I knew what the term animation was by having a friend get on a sled on the front lawn, and then I’d hit the little button on the camera and then like, “Okay, move a foot, let’s see what this is gonna look like.” Hit the button again. Then by the time I was 13, I got my first video camera and I did mostly music videos, bizarre things that I found hilarious as a 13-year-old, generally sexual, to the popular music of our times. I always wanted to make movies but I never really had the patience to sit down and write a screenplay until I went to Syracuse University.
I majored in film and I took a screenwriting class and was taught the basics, not anything… I mean, frankly, I feel [inaudible 00:03:02] go back to Syracuse University and where at least now they can listen to your podcast, to tell them when you write a script there are certain rules you need to know that go beyond the foundations that you would read in a book and it may have to do with casting your film, getting a film [inaudible 00:03:20], picking a genre that’s marketable. Because when I first came out to Los Angeles at the age of 23, Clerks had just come out and Swingers, and there was this indie spirit in the air. I did in my head to not do the work that I needed to do as a writer to do that formulaic thing of the Disney movies. I didn’t wanna adhere to the repetitious formula that’s been done so many times before, rules before I even knew them.
So my characters did not arc properly. Act two did not begin sufficiently. I basically spent seven years again, trying to go against the grain thinking, not realizing that for every Clerks that managed to come out, there were a thousand other films to hit the limelight that… there were also characters didn’t really arc much, it was mostly spoken word, it succeeded because it just hit something in the ether and put its finger on the pulse with a great assortment of dick jokes. And I think I wasted seven years. My managers, who I had, who believed I had talent really sort of beat it into me, “Dude, start playing by the rules of screenplay and not think that the world wants something so original that it will allow you to sort of draw as you go, just because you find it’s never been done before and must therefore be interesting.”
Ashley: So let’s talk about sort of that transition. You’re writing these scripts, it sounds like at some point you got to manager, so you must, they must have been at least at a level that they were interesting to a manager. Maybe talk to that a little bit. How did you get your first manager or agent?
Eric: Yeah, it’s funny. For years I had my… still my good friend, J. Mackye Gruber, Jonathan, as I call him, was a writing partner. We were both in our early twenties, he had just gotten out of USC, I had just moved to LA. We clicked immediately and we just started writing together. And because we were fans of the Coen brothers, every script we wrote was of a different genre and it was… and we would push ourselves to get up. We would up in [inaudible 00:05:45] AM and we would write until about 6:00 PM. We were both really driven. We wouldn’t… like taking a break for lunch felt like an extravagance where we were being lazy, and we just wrote and wrote and wrote.
And what we ended up with is a pile of scripts that had great dialogue, interesting characters and terrible structure. Just, we [inaudible 00:06:10] begin on page 30, there was no inciting incident at 17, there was no 80 page low. We didn’t know any of those rules, but the characters and situations were definitely intriguing. And we sent our scripts out, this is kind of pre-internet, to all of the major managers and agents out there. Over at Zide/Perry Films, they were film producers, I think they had already done American Pie by that point, they were also managers. Over there was J. C. Spink who read three of our bizarre screenplays that were really comedies, and he was unsure of whether to sign us, I think for that reason.
I don’t think he ever said, “Guys, your structure sucks, but I’m loving what I’m reading. I just can’t do anything with it.” And he said, “Do you have anything else?” We both looked at each other and we had written a script called Blackouts that had later become The Butterfly Effect. We showed it to one person who had kind of liked dark comedies, was a struggling producer in Hollywood, also young and green. He liked our comedies and we showed him this Butterfly Effect script and he was like, “Guys, I don’t even know what to make of that. That’s like way dark. I wouldn’t even know who to send that to.” And we were very discouraged and we put it in a drawer for years. So now years later, J. C. Spink is asking us, “Do you have anything else?” and we’re like, “Shit, we don’t really, but I guess we could dust off that screenplay and hand him that.”
We, I guess, drove it over to the office as one would do back then and at the end of the day, he called up and said, “Guys, come on over. I want you to sign.” That was the huge breakthrough for us. Because then it’s, I mean, this is years had gone by where we’re writing, but all we knew is until you get a manager, until you get somebody, an agent, you were literally trying to leave art, literally true story, a friend of a friend knows that Natalie Portman is at a certain hotel, and if we were to give this script and sort of put it on her pillow of her hotel room, she would probably definitely read it. I think that was for the avenue, it was psychotic avenues that we were being encouraged to take.
We finally got a manager and things went just a little smoother, a little more professionally from that point on.
Ashley: You tell that story about the hotel with Natalie Portman and it’s such a common thing when you roll into Hollywood, you meet that guy that his Uber driver knew this guy or knew this guy. And it is, you start to realize that those are very tenuous at best.
Eric: Yeah. And it took me for years when I first got to count, I was 23 and there were young Hollywood players. We would go to Canter’s Deli on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, hang there and talk about their Hollywood dreams and who they knew and how they were making it and all these deals they had lined up just about ready to go. Then everyone would stay until four in the morning, go home, sleep till noon, you know, mid-twenties, and it took me a couple of years of a week doing it. All the people I know who actually have something going, they wake up early, they don’t go to Canter’s, they work. And when they’re not working, they’re working on their craft, whatever that is.”
So it’s hard when you’re dreaming big dreams, but you don’t have a mentor to just take you aside and go, “You’re doing it entirely wrong.”
Ashley: Yeah. Hopefully, this podcast episode can help with that. So let’s dig into your latest film Ghosts of War. Maybe to start out, you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is that film all about?
Eric: Towards the end of World War II, 1944, and a group of American soldiers are tasked to hold down a Chateau. The Nazis had been through there once towards the end of the war and it’s in France. So we’ve now swept across, taking it back, and their cake assignment is to stay at this house where they’ll have Brandy and cheese and not have to sleep outdoors in the cold and just sit there until their relief comes, which would be great while it lasts. The minute they get there, they realize that the soldiers that they’re relieving really wanna get out of the house. And as they stay there, they realize there’s a good reason that these other guys wanted to leave. I wanted to make a story that was about not just the family that moves into a haunted house because I’d seen that a million times.
I really want it to be, Well, I’d like to see what happens when bad-asses is show up at a house and have to take on a ghost. How would they handle it? I mean, I’ve seen the typical horror movie with the family a thousand times [inaudible 00:11:12] but I wanted to do something different. So this is a pretty contained haunted house movie with a pretty big turn of events that most people won’t see coming. But I just wanted to give the audience a little something different, basically writing something that I would like to go see.
Ashley: Yeah. And so tell me sort of the story of this script. You had this idea, you wrote the script, did you pitch it to your agent and manager, just the idea and they said, “Oh yeah, that sounds exciting. Go write that?” Were you pitching them lots of ideas? How do you decide which ideas to write and maybe just walk us through that process of sort of settling on the idea and then going to work.
Eric: Yeah. In this case, you know, every screenplay is different and I’ll generally, when it comes to writing, I’ll generally write things that are a little off the beaten path. [inaudible 00:12:13] the success of Butterfly Effect, just the way I like to write, I try to stay away from anything that can be seen as derivative, but having seen so many movies, everything can be seen as derivative. So the things I write are sometimes things Hollywood doesn’t wanna make. Then I will periodically, get on the phone, call up some of my reps and say, “Okay, here are the four things I’m thinking of.” And they’ll encourage me in one direction or another, generally towards the one that they can help me with the most, the one that is more commercial or more acceptable to a mass audience.
Invariably I’ll go for the one that I shouldn’t be working on, the strange one with almost no commercial potential because that’s what ignites the passion in me and that’s what makes me sit down effortlessly at the computer and keep writing. So I write a lot of spec scripts and a lot of them, I already know have two strikes against them going out. Right now, the last thing I’ve written is a Western, eeh, strike one. The lead is a woman who it turns into a classic Western revenge picture. She is a schoolmarm who ultimately must turn into Hannibal Lecter, strike two, it’s a female lead, Hollywood wants male leads, what are you thinking? But I can’t help it. And I don’t encourage this in other people.
But the same way a writer writes and sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants, I encourage all young writers, please don’t go by what I do, go by what I say, which is make your jobs easier for yourself. Pick a genre that you feel proficient in and don’t make it a harder climb than necessary because the climb is plenty hard enough as it is. Try to do the end and use the structure, read the books on screenwriting. Because this is what I would ultimately discover. My first job, I was a CAA reader in Hollywood. I would get paid 35 bucks to read a script, break it down, do an analysis on it and $50 for a novel. This is in the nineties, I hope the prices have gone up since then. It was not really enough to live on, but I thought, “Hey, this is Hollywood. I got my foot in the door.”
And what I would eventually learn is kind of the system of how it worked and that, whereas I wouldn’t adhere to structure, because the problem with that is the person like me that reads your script, that is literally in a giant mailbox that I can pick and choose the shortest ones, I want a short one because I’m getting paid peanuts to read it. So if you have 150 page screenplay, I’m leaving that for the next guy. But if there’s a 90-page screenplay in there and oh my God, it’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that’s mine for the weekend and I’ll grab it that way. The problem is whatever I read is going to the junior executive at CAA, and if you can’t play by the rules, then even if they love it, they’re not gonna embarrass themselves and send it up the chain.
Because then their boss is gonna read it and go, “Why did you give me this crap? Act two begins on page 40. This person doesn’t play by the rules. If you can’t tell that, and if you don’t filter that so that I’m not wasting my time, I don’t have use for you.” So no matter what you’re writing, unless you’re Terentino, you really need to first play by all the rules and make your lives easier because there are traditions. Before anyone who has the power to greenlight this thing or get it to actors or send it out to producers and try packaging it, it needs to pass the basic tests of is this a traditionally written screenplay? And while I was a reader, boy, forget spelling errors and just the entire format of the screenplay would be wrong and it would hurt to read.
I wish I could give direct feedback to the writer just saying, “Dude, hire a friend if you’re too lazy to do it, but like get this in the right format at least. You’ll help yourself because you have some good stuff here.” But that’s not my job.
Ashley: Yeah. I’m curious. The big pushback on the formula and the act breaks in the right spot, the inciting incident, the big pushback is that it becomes formulaic and it sort of stifles creativity. How do you sort of respond to that, and how do you try and make things creative when you are adhering to a pretty rigid template?
Eric: Well, it’s the thing, it’s sort of it was knocked into my head after so many failures like that expression, I never… Thomas Edison never [inaudible 00:17:28] bulb, he learned a thousand ways to fail at building the light bulb. Well, I mangled that, but you know what I mean. After years of getting through the three-act structure properly, you then can sort of step away from it because now I have an intuition. I have a certain sense of timing when I read that even if you took the page numbers off the page or more specifically, when I watch a movie, and this all writers should know, like being a pitch [inaudible 00:17:58] you’re gonna know that that’s gone from C to G to an A minor. You’re gonna know all these things, whether you want to or not.
And when I watched Remember the Titans, for example, and they win the big game, but something in my bio mechanism is telling me, “Uh-oh, don’t feel too good because something bad is about to happen.” Because I feel like I’m in… [inaudible 00:18:21] bam! There’s the car crash and our star quarterback and star of the movie will never walk again. Boom! It just turned bad. And we’ve hit night of the soul is soon to follow. So you know these rules and then it’s really up to me to every time I feel myself the internal events becoming too derivative is to back up, back it. Just put the car in reverse, stop going down that road and come up with something we haven’t seen before, or at least know that you’re gonna land further down where no one has been before.
So at least it will justify all of the times that you leaned into a trope. For example, Ghosts of War, I wanted to, because there are certain things that happen at the end of the film, I wanted the beginning of the film to sort of lean into the trope right down to the names of the characters. Eugene, the muscly guy is named Butchie. The hero, the noble character is Chris Goodson like Christ Goodson. I wanted to give such a sense of familiarity that I could pull the rug out from under the viewers when something goes down later in the film. That gave me a certain license to sort of break away. But you should keep writing until you know as a reader, like as you’re reading, if you’re getting impatient because the first shoe hasn’t dropped yet, then you know it’s time to drop that shoe.
And if it turns out that that shoe is dropping on page 25, rather than page 30, then maybe you told it so well for your first act, that it’s time to start the movie for real and dive into the second act. But I still watch movies that I consider perfect, like Back to the Future. And if you ask a family member or friend who’s not into writing, “So how many minutes…?” the movie is an hour and 55 minutes long, “What minute do you think that DeLorean went back to 1955?” They’ll probably say 15 minutes. They don’t realize it’s 30 minutes almost to the button when that Zemeckis takes, and Bob Gale, they take their time with act one, making sure there are so many setups for Marty McFly that we have…
We’re not gonna just watch Marty McFly, we’re gonna become Marty McFly. We’re gonna relate to him, we’re gonna care about him so hard that by the time we’re in 1955, we are on this adventure with him. We are participants in the events about to follow. So I sometimes am told by other people they’re like jaded or bored and they want like sooner. And I feel like, no, you… I know what you’re saying, but you’re doing a disservice to the overall product. We need to live in the ordinary day for a little longer and take that time to care about our characters or this is all gonna be worthless.
Ashley: Perfect. How can people see Ghosts of War, do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Eric: Yes. On July 17, it will be out on Amazon Prime [inaudible 00:21:39] and that they crank it. If it’s a horror movie, I think it deserves to be watched loud, but it will be available for streaming. It was gonna have a theatrical release, but we’re all on lockdown, so until then just crank it. That’s all I can say.
Ashley: Perfect Eric. Well, I appreciate you coming on and talking with me. Good luck with this film and good luck with all your future films as well.
Eric: Thank you, Ashley. I really appreciate it. It was a pleasure to talk to you.
Ashley: Hey, no problem. Thank you. We’ll talk to you later.
Eric: Great. Thanks.
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 www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/success. 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 access 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 are looking for shorts, features, TV and web series, pilots all types of projects. If you sign up for SYS Select, you’ll 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 go to www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com.
On the next episode of the podcast, I’m gonna be interviewing writer-director, Kyle Couch. He wrote and directed a film called The Tent, a post-apocalyptic thriller. He’s done a lot of shorts to get to this point where he’s now directing his first feature film. We talk a bit about his shorts, how he got those out there, and then we dig into The Tent and how he brought that picture to life. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s the show. Thank you for listening.