This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 372: With Writer/Director Hicham Hajji.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #372 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today, I am interviewing Hicham Hajji who just 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 into writing and directing. 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 goes up by $10. So if your script is ready, definitely submit early.
We’re looking for low budget shorts and features. 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. So if this sounds like something you might like to learn more about, you can see all the industry judges listed on the page and learn about all of the prizes. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or 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 the 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 #372. Just a quick few words about what I’m working on. So we’re still plugging away on The Rideshare Killer. We did the final sound mix yesterday, so that’s all finished. I’m gonna pick up the drive from the colorist hopefully this weekend or maybe early next week. Then I will meet with the editor after that, as the editor has to basically take all of these pieces, the sound, the color, there’s one special… not special. Really it’s an animated logo that we’re gonna add to the end of the film.
So we just basically put all these pieces together. Hopefully that will be done next week. We’ve got to like finalize credits and stuff. So there’s still a couple of pieces once we get back to the editor, but we’re definitely on the home stretch. My colorist is fixing a lot of little errors that we made. So a big thanks to Mike, our colorist. Last week I mentioned we had a shot with the second camera guy in the background, and there was actually another shot. Mike actually found that shot, and he was able to basically just darken the background so the camera man, you couldn’t see him. Then I actually noticed the boom in a shot and Mike was again able to color that out, no problem at all. So that’s all fine.
But doing the final sound mix yesterday, Michael, who is our sound mixer, just coincidentally has the same name, Mike and Mike as the colorist, but two different people. In any event, I was with our sound mixer, Michael yesterday, and he had one of these projector screens in his little sound room. You know, you can really, it’s a big screen, he’s got good sound and stuff. Anyways, it was the first time I had seen the film on a really big screen. I noticed that there was one scene where the killer is driving the van and you can actually kinda see his face. This film is a mystery so we don’t wanna do any kind of reveal like that early in the film. It’s, you’ve got to watch the film to the end to find out who the killer is.
Anyways Mike doesn’t seem to have any problem with this, so he’s gonna darken that shot. He just, he goes in and he can just darken that one little spot where the face is, and then you won’t really be able to tell. It’ll be very, very subtle. You can barely tell as is, so just a little bit of coloring. When I say coloring, just sort of darkening that little spot. It’s a nighttime shot anyway. So again, just darkening a little bit, you won’t be able to see the face. So anyways, he’s gonna do that, and then as I said, I’m gonna pick up the drive from him, hopefully this weekend or early next week, and then be back with Diego, our editor, putting everything together. People are starting to ask me, I’ve started to get emails about when they can see the movie.
You’re never quite sure when we’re gonna be released, even once the film is done. In the short term, if you chipped in money on the Kickstarter, all of those folks will get the film pier, hopefully in the next month. As soon as we have a finished, kind of a finished polished copy, we’ll send a link out to the Kickstarter folks. But then we’re taking the film to film festivals and distributors. To be honest with you, even the festivals we’re applying to, most of them don’t take place for, you know, three months or something. We’re hoping to do some in-person festivals now with the vaccine, the COVID vaccine getting out. I’m very optimistic that a lot of these festivals, certainly in the second half of this year will sort of be back to normal.
So most of the festivals we’re entering, as I said, they don’t start till I think about June or July. They’re sort of after that. Really, as I said, in an effort to give us some time to get the vaccine out there so that we can actually go to these festivals and hopefully get something out of them. But anyways, we’re also gonna go to distributors, and so that process is not easy. I have been talking to a couple of distributors, so there are definitely some distributors waiting to see the film. I’ve kinda talked it up and they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, send it along as soon as you have it.” So I’m hoping that one of those distributors takes it, and that will be fast, quick and easy. But even if a distributor takes it right out of the gate, you’re still probably looking at at least six months before the film does get released.
So my guess is the release date will be in about six to 12 months. As I said, in the short term, the Kickstarter folks will definitely get an advanced copy, hopefully within the next month or six weeks or something, we’ll have a totally finished product that we can show to the Kickstarter folks. But as I said, it’s definitely moving along and I’m definitely excited to finally be getting this finished, and hopefully I can start moving on to some other projects. Hopefully you saw the trailer too. We released that now probably a month ago. It’s on YouTube if you wanna check it out. But anyways, that’s the main thing I’ve been working on here last week, is just trying to get The Rideshare Killer a little further or a little closer to being finished.
So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing Hicham Hajji, writer-director. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome, Hicham to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Hicham: Thank you. 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?
Hicham: I grew up in Morocco where I spent most of my life, and then I went to Canada to… I went to Montreal where I had, when I was 21. I did a little film school. Then get back to Morocco where I worked as a, I mean, as a production assistant and then second AD, then first AD. So I really started from the bottom. You know, I’ve been, I was fortunate that after a few years of working as a first AD to create my company, and then I started to line produce movies in Morocco, American movies in Morocco, American, European, English. So I’ve been doing the production services where I receive a Hollywood production and I just, I budget everything they use in the script and I take care of almost everything.
At a certain point, I felt like I was kind of doing always the same thing and I decided to start to write my own stories. I wrote my short films that I directed and produced, and then… then you know what, after a certain point, I just, I decided to move to go to LA. Actually I’m living between the two countries. I’m spending half time in LA and half time in Morocco. I go back to Morocco when I have movies to shoot or something. I just, I was really convinced that I could write something impactful and some good stories to produce for the international market. So I came here in LA and I came with an idea of Redemption Day. This is something I wrote after I lost my friend on a terrorist attack in Africa.
Ashley: Oh no!
Hicham: Yeah. I decided to write a different kind of story that we usually see watching in America with a different point of view, with my point of view, with the local Moroccan kind of point of view. I’ve been working on this script for almost three, four years. I’ve been writing my own version of the story, and then I had my writer Sammy who’s been developing the first draft and then I had to hire somebody else to help us develop, you know, make it look better. Then I took all the scripts and all these notes and everything and mixed it up to make it my way. Then I’ve been writing the script until the last day of the shoot, because once we had the good script that we, everyone agreed about and once you get on set, you have the new locations, you have new characters, you have a lot of things completely different as what I was thinking. You just keep writing until it’s perfect.
Ashley: Yeah. So a couple of questions just to unpack sort of your origin story a little bit. So you’re working in production, how did you make that transition from AD to producer and writer-director? Did you start to tell people, “Hey, I wanna write, I wanna direct?” I’m just asking because I know a lot of people that listen to this podcast, they’re probably working in production and you don’t wanna be that annoying AD who constantly is throwing your script at people and annoying people. How do you use those contexts, but use them in an appropriate way to not annoy them, but… not necessarily annoy them, but they can still help you with your career?
Hicham: Well, listen, there is no secret. You know better than me, everyone has a script somewhere or maybe even more than one script. And a lot of people have bad scripts. There’s only a few people who have good scripts. You have to have these good scripts, and you have to have the experience behind you. Because when you go to meet a producer if you have no background and you just have a script, I mean, it costs a lot of money to develop a script and to develop, you know, go out there, lock the actors and everything. So you have to have… if you don’t have the background experience as a producer or AD or anything, you have to have a good script and you have to be able to pitch it in the best way so everyone likes the idea and wanna know more about it. That’s what you need from people.
You need them to be curious and say, “Oh, I like this idea. I wanna know more.” Then they read the script. Because the script by itself it’s… I hate to say that, but it’s a script by itself it’s nothing. Because what’s worth a lot of money is to have a producer who’s gonna put his money on the table, who’s gonna get the actors for you, who’s gonna get the team for you. I mean, it’s, you know, somebody who’s gonna be spending two years of his life to make it happen.
Ashley: So in this particular case, is that person, is that producer also yourself, or did you have a team of other producers that came in and helped you with this?
Hicham: Listen, the producer was myself, but it was very helpful when I spoke with Voltage Nicolas Chartier, he’s a producer, and they… Voltage Pictures is a company that sells movies internationally and domestically. So once… I sent them the script two times and those two times, they said, no. So first time they respond very quick, that, “You know what? It’s not our type of movie.” The second time they said, “Okay, the script is much better, but we still think it’s not there,” blah, blah, blah, blah. The third time I had Andy Garcia with me. And you know, when you have something strong, it’s not just the script. You have, you have actors or you have finance or you have anything, then everyone is becoming interested and at that point, people want to get involved.
So you know what? It was a big, big, big job for me to raise this kind of money to lock the actors and everything. But what was helpful is when I went to Nicolas from Voltage and told him about the concept, told him about what, who I can get and everything. And his help was big because if you don’t have distribution, you don’t have anything.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. So let’s dig into Redemption Day and talk a little bit about the writing of that script. Maybe to start out, you can just give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is the logline for Redemption Day?
Hicham: Well, listen, it’s… when I pitch it like this, it sounds like this classical American movie of it’s a woman who’s been kidnapped and her husband goes to save her. But it’s not only about that, it’s… We talk about… the movie’s about a famous archeologist who goes to Morocco after they discover these very ancient human bones. What’s new about it is we’ve been thinking that human origin come from Eastern Africa 200,000 years ago, and they discovered for real, that’s not the fiction, that’s the real part. They discovered in Morocco human bones dating back to 315,000 years ago. So it’s changing all the human origin of where we come from. So Kate Paxton, she goes to Morocco, she’s trying to see this amazing discovery and everything, but the desert area is so huge so they cross the border without doing it on purpose.
They get kidnapped, and actually what we try to show in this movie, it’s not just this guy who’s going to Morocco to save his wife, but trying to show the political aspect of it. The problem that we have between Morocco and Algeria. The oil companies who’ve been beginning this area and who is the entity financing all of these kinds of operations.
Ashley: I’m curious… Those are all fascinating things, and that’s, I think you’re hitting on a great point. Because when I watched your trailer, I’m thinking, okay, this is very similar to a movie like Taken. It sort of fits that Taken paradigm, sort of an action, you know, very similar type of film. It’s interesting hearing what you’re saying, trying to, giving it that unique spin with the local politics and stuff. Did you get any pushback from distributors or producers, financiers? I mean, are they interested in a movie that is about sort of the geopolitical aspects of this? Or do they wanna lean more into something like Taken?
Hicham: No. They wanted to lean more on something like Taken. I mean, everyone from the financiers to the distributors, everyone wanted something with action that attracts the international audience and everything, but I was trying to do my best to do both of them. I wanted to… of course you need to have action, you need to have, love, and if you can have a good message behind all of this, that’s even better.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. So let’s just talk about the writing process of this script. On IMDb you’re listed as a co-writer with Sam Chouia and Lemore Syvan. Maybe talk about that relationship. How did you guys work? Did you guys outline together and then break it up into scenes? Did you get a full version of the script that then you rewrote? What was sort of the collaboration on this? How did that all work?
Hicham: That was… I’m gonna tell you exactly. First I wrote a treatment with a story. Since it’s not my… English is not my first language, so I need someone to write better than me. But what I do first is write the story from the beginning to the end. Then I hired Sam Chouia who’s been helping a lot with writing the script and going into my vision and following my lead. Because it was my story, it was not his story. He was not aware of all these kinds of types of things. So what happened is he’s been writing scene by scene and he would send me a first draft or before we get to the first draft, he’s been sending me like the scenes that he wrote. I will send him two or three pages of notes and say, change this, put this here.
You know, just trying to go to my vision and have the end of the story that I wanted. We’ve been working like this for 10 versions. I think I did 10 drafts with him. After the 10 drafts, I saw that we needed a new and fresh vision. So I met Lemore through a friend and she’s been also of great help. She came with a new vision, with new ideas. So she’s been also working with me, making the script better. Once I knew she gave me her best and everything I think we had that time a very good version that we were going with in the market. After her, then it was just editing the script. Then I took it over and I started to edit and change the dialogues, add the dialogues, add new dialogues, add new scenes, cut some scenes that I felt we didn’t really need. Yeah, that was exactly like this.
Ashley: Yeah. So how do you approach something like screenplay structure with something like this? Especially as I said, you’re going to financers and to distributors that are expecting sort of an action movie like Taken. Are you going into it sort of feeling, okay, we know we’ve got to have an action scene every 10 pages? Are you using some of those stock distribution templates for action movies? How did you approach it just in terms of the structure and the genre requirements?
Hicham: Well, to be honest, I couldn’t afford to make a movie like Taken. This was completely different. We had little money at the time and I wanted to keep in mind to produce something feasible. We didn’t have an action movie every 10 pages, but we had few of them. I mean, at the end of the movie, I think is the last 25 pages are mainly action. I was not really thinking about how I’m gonna go to the distributors and tell them about action or anything. I just had the story in my mind and I wanted to tell it. Yeah, I think the main idea is to show at the end this political problems and everything, but mainly I wanted to tell the story about this guy, the relationship with his wife and the PTSD aspect. Yeah.
Ashley: Got you. Now I’m curious, you mentioned earlier in the interview that having Andy Garcia attached to the project definitely put a different sort of light on the entire project. How did you get Andy Garcia attached to this? Did you have a connection? Did you hire a casting director that was able to make an offer to him? Maybe talk about that process a little bit. I know I get a lot of screenwriters listening to this that are always curious, how do we get talent attached to our project?
Hicham: So that’s what… To be honest, it’s right and everything. The minute we opened this conversation, it was… I started to see that the movie is gonna get going, it’s gonna happen. I met… I had a casting director, Nancy Foy. She’s amazing. I’m trying to find other words, but she’s just amazing. She’s has been working for Paramount for like 10 years as the executive head of casting. She knows everyone. When I met her first, she didn’t know me at that time. So she was not really convinced about the script. She didn’t like the script. I’ve been on it and six months later I sent her another version of the script and she said, “Oh, now I like it. I can see the difference. I can see…”
Because she’s been… we’ve been talking and she’s been advising me on a lot of stuff. That since I’m not from LA, I’m not from the United States, I’m just a Moroccan guy who comes to LA and try to make stuff. She’s been… actually we spent a year talking together, working and everything, and then she knew me and she knew that this project is gonna happen, and that as a producer, I’m gonna make stuff happen. So then she said, “You know what, let’s start to make offers. I think now we’re ready.” And she’s been talking to agents all over the agency. I think the first, after we got Gary, we went after Andy Garcia and he immediately said, yes. He read the script, he liked it. We made a decent offer, and he was… he liked the script.
He’d never been to Morocco and he wanted to go, and you know what, and once we got Andy, the excitement behind the project started to rise. So we had all the financers wanted to put a little bit more, every other actors that we talked to was happy to join the project. To be honest, once you have the guy, everything has become very easy.
Ashley: So just to wrap things up, how can people see Redemption Day? Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Hicham: Yeah. So it’s gonna be in selected theaters in whatever theaters are open on January 8th and Video On Demand on January 12th.
Ashley: Perfect. What’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? A blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, anything we’ll round that up for the show notes. Do you use any of those?
Hicham: Yes. Actually, I’m not into social media as a professional social media, but I’m on Twitter, I’m on LinkedIn and my company, H Films production is on Instagram and Facebook.
Ashley: Okay, well, perfect. Well, I really appreciate you coming on and talking with me today. Good luck with this film and good luck with all your future films as well.
Hicham: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
Ashley: Thank you. We’ll talk to you later. Bye.
I just wanna talk quickly about SYS Select. It’s a service for screenwriters to help them sell their screenplays and get writing assignments. The first part of the service is the SYS Select screenplay database. Screenwriters upload their screenplays along with a logline, synopsis and other pertinent information like budget and genre, and then producers search for and hopefully find screenplays 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 gonna 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 Jacob Johnston, who just wrote and directed a horror film called Dreamcatcher. He started out right out of college, working as an intern at Marvel and kinda getting in there around 2010 as Marvel was really starting to take off. He talks about that experience and his job was kinda managing the artists in helping them do the visual development of various characters and various items that are in this Marvel Cinematic Universe.
So he just got in there as an intern, eventually worked his way up there, and now he is writing and directing feature films. So he comes on to talk about that. Again, it’s a nice little horror movie called Dreamcatcher. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s our show. Thank you for listening.