This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 371: With Filmmaker John Swab.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #371 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today, I am interviewing Oklahoma filmmaker, John Swab, another great story of someone who’s getting out there and making things happen for themselves. He’s written directed a crime thriller called Body Brokers, about the addiction treatment industry here in the United States. It’s a fascinating take on something that’s very timely and very important, and John has wrapped it all into an entertaining film. He talks about his whole journey. He did a short film first, which he then took out and promoted, which ultimately sort of led to this film, and he goes into all of that.
So stay tuned for that interview. SYS’s Six Figure Screenplay contest is open for submissions. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. The early bird deadline is March 31st. After that, it does go up by $10. So if your script is ready, definitely submit early. We’re looking for the best low budget shorts and feature film scripts. I’m defining low budget as less than six figures. In other words, less than $1 million. We’ve got lots of industry judges reading scripts in the later rounds. We’re giving away thousands in cash and prizes. The winning script from last year was taken by one of our industry judges to a great production company and actually did get optioned. We’re hoping that that’s gonna go into production here later this spring or early summer.
So hopefully I’ll have an update on that as well. But we’re definitely getting some interest in this context and all of these industry judges, many of them are coming back from last year, and I’ve also added in a number of new industry judges. So if you’re interested in that, definitely check it out. Again, it’s www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leave me a comment on YouTube or re-tweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook. The social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast. So they’re very much appreciated any websites or links that I mentioned 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, can find all the podcast, show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast. And then just look for Episode Number #371. Quick few words about what I’m working on. So we’re really plugging away on the Rideshare Killer and we really are getting close to being finished. I know I’ve been saying this now for well over a year. I guess we did our Kickstarter about a year ago. I think we did it in, it sort of ended in February, so it probably ended about a year ago. So I don’t know, a year of post-production I don’t think is terrible for an indie film.
But anyways, we are gonna be done here hopefully in the next month. I’m actually meeting with the final sound mixer next week to do the final sound pass. The color is basically done. There’s one effect shot that we still need to get colored. I noticed a boom in one shot again where we’ve locked picture and stuff, so hopefully the colors can easily remove that boom. It’s against a pretty simple white background. So I think he’ll be able to just kinda fade it out. Mike is our colorist and he actually noticed the cameraman in the corner of one of our scenes, or one of our opening shots. Once he pointed it out it was super obvious, even though we had missed it, watching several cuts.
Again though thankfully, he was able to just color it out by sort of fading out the background. It’s a dark nightclub scene, so it was pretty easy, I think for him to just fade it out so we don’t notice it in the background. But there’s always these little things as you’re moving through the process that need a little bit of tweaking, but I don’t expect this to be any kind of a holdup. Anyway, that’s done and we’re back… once that is done, then we’re back to the editor to put all the pieces together. He’ll take the color version of the film, he’ll take all the sound and we have that one effect shot at the end, a little graphic, an animated graphic that we’re gonna lay over at the end of the final scene as well. So just a couple little pieces once everything comes together.
Again, I don’t expect that we’ll take that long once we have all those pieces. Tony, my producing partner on this project is actually starting to submit to some festivals, so that’s exciting too. So we’re gonna get a rough cut version I’m hoping here in the next week or two, that’s pretty much solid that we can start to submit to film festivals. So we’re doing that exercise starting to figure out what festivals might be a good fit for this film. I’m excited to be done with this film and get it out into the world. I know I’ve been talking about it for a long time. Hopefully you did see the trailer. We released that a few weeks ago. It’s up on YouTube if you do wanna check it out. But as I wrap this up, that’s definitely been a big part of my schedule the last couple of weeks.
So that’s the main thing that I’ve been working on. So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing Oklahoma filmmaker, John Swab. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome John to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
John: Thanks for having me Ashley.
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?
John: I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and there’s not a lot of movie presence here or it wasn’t when I was growing up. So it always fascinated me. I didn’t know how movies were made. I had an uncle who was kind of on the fringe of the film industry. He wrote a few episodes of a Miami Vice and he also produced a few movies and I thought he was a cool guy. I was interested in what he was doing and he really liked me, and he would take me to movies and kind of explained to me how they were made and it fascinated me. So from there, I always had a love for writing. I think I’m a writer first and wanted to write. I didn’t really wanna write a novel because I didn’t know, people don’t really read novels that much anymore.
I do, but most people don’t. So I thought the best way to get my voice heard as a writer was via writing screenplays. So, after a lot of trial and error, I figured it out and here I am.
Ashley: Do you still feel that way now after making several films, do you still feel like as a writer, your best avenue is screenwriting?
John: No, not necessarily. I mean, I just think for me personally, the kind of stories I wanna tell… my favorite books growing up were like dimes, like Sundry novels. Like Jim Thompson or Elmore Leonard or these kinda crime novels. They’re really pulpy and you could kinda just bang out in a day or two. So for that kinda writing, I felt like it lent itself to film more than anywhere else.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. So let’s talk about the early part of your career. You did a short Judas’ Chariot and then you did two feature films. Maybe talk about that. How did you get that short off the ground? How did you get it financed, how did you get it produced, and then ultimately, how did that dovetail into these first two feature films?
John: Yeah. I mean, it’s a lot of people ask, “What should I do? I’m a writer, what should I do?” And it’s… there’s no excuse for not taking action. For me, I had written the script for my first film, Let Me Make You A Martyr, and I couldn’t get the money to make the movie. So at the time we were like, “Well, what if we make a prequel to this?” Let Me Make You A Martyr takes place in one day, so we thought what happens, you know, and it’s this guy who comes back into town and he’s coming back to handle this business that he’s got to do, this unfinished business. So we thought what happens the day he left town, however many years before? Let’s write a short about that.
So it cost about, I think 12 or 13 grand. Jeremy, my partner on that helped put up, I got some money from some friends. I mean, it was a, we just kinda pooled together everything we had and we made it. I remember the first night after shooting, we were looking at the footage and I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, I can actually do this. Like, it looks like a movie.” Until that point I had no real experience for narrative, and to see people saying the words I had written out loud and it not look like total shit was shocking to me and invalidating. So, you know.
Ashley: Yeah. How did you have the courage? Did you have some sort of a background in production? Had you worked as a PA on your friend, student films? Did you have any sort of a background in production at all, and how did you have the courage just to say, “Hey, I’m gonna be the director of this project, the leader of this and lead this band of people through this?”
John: No, I hadn’t had any experience at all. But it’s like most of my life, I don’t really have any experience in anything I’m doing. But you just kinda throw yourself into it and figure it out. It’s important to hire good people and surround yourself with good people and people who do know what they’re doing, because they make you look like you do too. So at that point, no, I had no experience at all.
Ashley: Got you. Then how were you able to take that short, I’m assuming the short was Judas’ Chariot, that was this prequel to Let Me Make You A Martyr, and then how were you able to get that? Did you send it to festivals? Did that start to get a little bit of buzz? How were you able to roll that into the feature version?
John: In my experience, festivals are by and large bullshit. So, I took a Judas’ Chariot and I just drove around the country and we rented out theaters in every city we stopped in and we’d pay for the town and hand out flyers and try and pack people into the theater. I think we did like 15 cities, we’d ask for a half hour of screen time in a theater and play our short. Finally, we landed back in Tulsa, Oklahoma where I’m from, and somebody came and saw the short, the next morning they called us and said, “How much money do you need to tell the rest of your story?” We told them, and they said, “I’ll give you the money.” But it wasn’t for lack of hard work, you know, from us.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. That is a great story. Sometimes it is just beating the pavement. So let’s dig into your latest film, Body Brokers, starring Frank Grillo. Maybe to start out, you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is that film all about?
John: Yeah, it’s about the drug and alcohol treatment industry right now, and really how there’s a billion dollar corruption scheme going on right now. Insurance fraud scheme.
Ashley: Where did this idea come from?
John: It came from my own personal experience, having been a drug addict and been in recovery now for five years, but I’d done a lot of time in treatment centers. So I’d been subject to a lot of this kind of predatory practices and with a little bit of time away from it and having been sober for a little while I decided to tell a story about it.
Ashley: Got you. So maybe we can talk a little bit about your writing process a little bit. Where do you typically write? Are you the home office guy, you go down to Starbucks? Do you need that ambient noise? When do you typically write, are you a morning person, night person? Just, what does your sort of writing schedule look like?
John: I wake up, I kind of have a rule and luckily I’ve my wife’s hip to it now too, but I have to wake up and start. I wake up, I work at home. I have a home office, I guess you could call it that. I have a routine. Routine’s is really important for me. I have to maintain the same routine every day when I’m writing, even when I’m not. But just to kinda keep my head in the headspace of the world I’m trying to attack and explore. So I would wake up and I try and write at least three pages every day. Sometimes I write four. On Body Brokers I… the last 67 pages were written in one day and they never changed. So, but I set a goal to write three pages every day. That’s my thing.
Ashley: Got you. Then how do you do outlining versus actually in final draft? Do you spend a lot of time just outlining, just making index cards, that sort of stuff, the prep work, and then how much time do you spend once you have that done actually in final draft, writing out dialogue and action?
John: I don’t know, I try and think about things in 10 to 15 page increments. I try not to go too far ahead. A lot of the times I’ll know how the film is gonna end or the final image of the film. In the case of Body Brokers, I did. But yeah, I try not to get too far ahead of myself. I just kinda think about, okay, what’s the next 10 pages look like and not go too far beyond that. When I get into final draft I’m working, I’m not staring at my computer a lot, so.
Ashley: Got you. How long did it take to write something like Body Brokers? What does that timeline look like? You’re talking a month, three months. It sounds like you’re doing three pages a day, but then you also have days where you do 60 pages a day.
John: Body Brokers took about four days to write.
Ashley: Oh, really? Wow.
John: Yeah. That was a rare occasion. But typically I try and, I’ve written four scripts since then or five and I try to keep it to about three weeks of writing. The time leading up to I’m usually kind of understanding who my characters are and the world they’re gonna be in. Then from there, once I have a good understanding of that, I can kind of just hit the ground running.
Ashley: Got you. How do you approach screenplay structure, how do you approach genre, and then ultimately, how do you take something that is very real and personal to you and dramatize it so that it’s interesting to an audience. I’m sure there’s some moments where you have to kinda take artistic liberties. How do you deal with that? Especially a topic like this that is so serious and really, you need to be careful not to be too hyperbolic about it. It’s a serious subject that requires some serious thought. So how do you handle something like that? It’s got to be interesting, but at the same time, there is an element of truth that you have to maintain.
John: In terms of structure for this movie, the thing, like you said, there’s a responsibility to tell the truth and also a responsibility to entertain. So trying to maintain that balance was tough. But I tried to just look at films that had done it successfully and emulate that structure where I could. But yeah, I mean, in general, the genesis of my screenplays, they didn’t start out good. They started out shit, you know? I had to learn through trial and error, and I’m always looking when I’m editing at where I can get better.
Ashley: Yeah, got you. What does your development process look like? It sounds like you were able to get this draft out in four days. Do you have some other writer friends or producer friend, actor friends? Do you send it out, do you get notes? How does that process work for you?
John: I’ve got, luckily I have a really great producer. I have a few good friends as well, but mostly it’s my producing Jeremy Rosen. With this, I sent this to him. I remember where I was when he called me, and he was like, “Is this real? I can’t believe… this is amazing. This is great. We have to tell the story.” But there’s been scripts that I’ve sent him too and we have to really troubleshoot and kind of break it down and I have to go back in and do some more drafts. I mean, really, it’s just important to have people in your life that you trust and that have your best interests. I’ve been really lucky with him that that’s the case. But he and I are both very much the same where we wanna work and we wanna keep moving forward.
So we don’t sit around and twiddle our thumbs or waste any time. It’s, “Okay, here are the notes. Let’s address them now and let’s move.” So yeah, that’s kinda my process.
Ashley: How did you meet Jeremy?
John: It’s kind of a cliché, funny story, but I met him at a coffee shop in Los Angeles. I was in town selling my movie Let Me Make You A Martyr. He was just gotten done putting out Dog Eat Dog, Paul Schrader’s film. We were sitting back-to-back at a coffee shop in Venice and I overheard him talking. I think I was with my dad at the time, he asked the name of his dog and, we just started talking and I liked his vibe. We seemed to get along. I sent him what was Run with the Hunted, the script, and I sent him a screener to Let Me Make You A Martyr and we were meeting up in person in Woodstock, New York a few weeks later, and the rest is history. Since then he’s sitting right here.
But he and I are very much partners in crime and have become very good friends through all this too.
Ashley: Are you in Oklahoma now or are you in LA now?
John: Yeah, we’re both in, we’re in Tulsa right now actually prepping another movie. So we’re…
Ashley: I’m curious, I’d be really curious to get especially someone from Oklahoma. I mean, I hear a lot of producers now, I guess Oklahoma really has a lot of incentives and they’re trying to bring some filming to the state. What do you see as some of the advantages to shooting in Oklahoma versus shooting in someplace like Los Angeles? Advantages and disadvantages?
John: I mean, we shot about 20 percent of Body Brokers in LA, and it… you can’t fake the ocean, you can’t fake Malibu, you can’t fake certain locations there. But it’s really expensive and it’s really bureaucratic, and there’s a lot of people with their hand out that need to be paid for everything. I’m from Oklahoma, I’m from here and I know the people here, so I have a little bit more leeway in the resources I have are more than anywhere else. So it’s, that’s a benefit. I always tell people that are writing or working on films, use what you have. Don’t write what you don’t know or don’t have. So when I write a screenplay a lot of the time, I’ll make a list of the things that I know I can get and then I figure out how they can incorporate into the story I’m trying to write.
Ashley: Got you. Okay, so you have this script, you and Jeremy polish it up, what were your next steps to actually raising the money? How were you guys able to raise the money to shoot this?
John: We shopped it around. I mean, he… I’ll let him tell you. You wanna tell him?
Ashley: Special guest on our podcast.
John: No. I mean, we cast a lot of our friends and… it’s, the irony is people in Hollywood wanna act like they’re trying to do good and tell stories that are gonna change the world. But when it comes time to raise money for those stories, they don’t wanna give you the fucking money for it. So it’s easy to get money for an action movie or a horror movie, but when you’re actually trying to tell something that might enact some change or has some heart to it, people can’t find their pocket book. So we almost killed ourselves making this movie. It was one of the toughest experiences of my life, but I’m really proud that we made it here, and I’m talking to you and other people about the film.
So private equity, a couple of companies got involved and helped us out. But it was not, it wasn’t an easy job raising the money.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. It never is I’m sure. Talk about casting Frank Grillo a little bit. I get a lot of emails from screenwriters saying, “How can I get this actor or that actor?” What is the process like that? Was Frank someone you had a previous relationship with? Did you hire a casting director that got the script to him? How did you bring him into the project?
John: No, I mean, Jeremy and I we’ve worked with some actors that Frank’s agent has, and Jeremy has got a really good relationship with that agent and the people over there. The coolest part about Body Brokers is that everybody involved had some kind of personal connection to the story. So Frank, he’s got his own, everybody knows somebody who’s struggled with addiction. I think that was the case for him, and that’s why he wanted to get involved. So, for people that are like, “How do I get an actor? How do I get an actor?” write a good fucking script and that’ll help. Then from there, you just got hustle, you know?
Ashley: No doubt. Never underestimate the hustle, for sure. How can people see Body Brokers? Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
John: Yeah. So it’ll be in select theaters on Friday and then VOD and digital platforms wherever you buy or rent your films.
Ashley: Got you. 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.
John: I just listen to the ground. I’m not on any of that social media stuff. So you just, I guess, you know.
Ashley: Listen to this podcast, maybe I’ll have you on in the future.
John: [inaudible 00:20:37] Ashley Scott Meyers podcast, there you go.
Ashley: Got you. Well, thanks for coming on the show. I really appreciate it. Good luck with this film and good luck with all your future films as well.
John: Thank you very much.
Ashley: Thank you. Bye.
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Every script will get a grade of pass, consider or recommend, which should help you roughly understand where your script might rank if you were to submit it to a production company or agency. We can provide an analysis on features or television scripts. We also do proofreading without any analysis. We will also look at a treatment or outline and give you the same analysis on it. So if you’re looking to vet some of your project ideas, this is a great way to do it. We will also write your logline and synopsis for you. You can add this logline and synopsis writing service to an analysis or you can simply purchase this service as a standalone product. As a bonus, if your screenplay gets a recommend or a consider from one of our readers, you get to list the screenplay in the SYS Select database, which is a database for producers to find screenplays and a big part of our SYS Select program.
Producers are in the database searching for material on a daily basis, so it’s another great way to get your material in front of them. As a further bonus, if your script gets a recommend from one of our readers, your screenplay will get included in our monthly Best Of newsletter. Each month we send out a newsletter that highlights the best screenplays that have come through our script analysis service. This is monthly newsletter that goes out to our list of over 400 producers who are actively looking for material, so again, this is another great way to get your material out there. So if you want a professional evaluation of your screenplay at a very reasonable price, check out www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants.
On the next episode of the podcast, I’m gonna be interviewing Hicham Hajji, who did a film called Redemption Day, starring Gary Dourdan, who you might remember from CSI fame. Hicham has worked as a producer on dozens of projects, and he talks about how he was able to make that leap to writing and directing feature films. 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 John. This feels like a great marrying of his personal experience in the substance abuse treatment arena with his love of storytelling. There’s that often quoted line that we hear so many times as writers, write what you know.
I feel like so often when I talk to writers, they seem to be taking this advice way too literally. This story wasn’t autobiographical for John, but it was personal. So he wrote about a world that he knew well and turned it into a compelling piece of entertainment with some clear social implications. Focusing people’s attention on an issue that you feel is important is one of the most powerful things about being a storyteller, and I think it’s one of the things that attracts us to this medium. Definitely check out Body Brokers if you get a chance. That’s our show. Thank you for listening.