This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 384: With Filmmaker Greg A. Sager.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #384 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, Greg Sager. He is an independent producer-writer-director who’s done a number of features and he’s on this week to talk about his psychological thriller, Open Your Eyes. He talks about his career, how he got into the business and ultimately how he is making feature films while living far 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 re-tweeting 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 #384. 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 whole bunch of bonus lessons.
I teach the whole process of how to sell your 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 am interviewing writer-director, Greg Sager. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Greg to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Greg: Thank you very much 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?
Greg: I grew up in a small town, Chatham, Ontario. Basically I kind of, I’m one of those typical stories. I saw Star Wars and right then and there, I kind of knew what I wanted to do. So it’s been a struggle, certainly, seeing how young I was then and how old I am now, but I just, it’s a disease the way I chalk it up. Once you kind of, it get your hooks in you, there’s not much you can do.
Ashley: And talk about that a little bit, because I’m real curious. Star Wars was a big influence in my life too. But talk about that. Like, why do you keep making these movies? Because it is a lot of times an uphill battle. And what do you ultimately get out of them besides maybe a little money or prestige or whatever? What are you actually looking for doing these types of movies?
Greg: It’s more, for me it’s… if it was for the money, I wouldn’t have, I’d been gone a long time ago [laughs]. It’s a creative outlet. I think that’s the big thing. It’s just some way to express my creative side, because that’s all I really know. That’s all I’ve ever… I was one of those, I would go to the Chatham Public Library and rent typewriters to write bad screenplays. Like it’s just I’ve been doing that for so long and it’s just, I don’t know how to do anything else really [laughs].
Ashley: Got you. So let’s talk about then your journey through the entertainment business. What were some of your first steps to actually turn this into a career? Did you go to film school and do some shorts? You have a couple of features now. I think that Open Your Eyes is your fourth feature. So maybe talk about that. How did you get to that point from zero to doing that first feature film?
Greg: I think, basically I didn’t go to film school. Basically I’m self-taught. I went to St. Clair College in Windsor just to, I took photography because I figured, okay, that’s close. I think it’ll translate. So I kind of went there and took beginners and advanced photography. Then it was just, I ended up moving to London back in, I think it was ‘98 or ‘99, somewhere in that range. And basically I knew what I wanted to do. I was writing scripts, was trying to get a movie going and I just basically looked up production companies in town here, and I saw Eyeline Cinematography, which is my DLP, Gary Elmer. And I looked them up in the phone book and I just said, “You know what? I’ve got this project, but more, I would like to come out and just help you. No pay, nothing, just I wanna to learn.”
So he ended up bringing me out on some corporate shoots and stuff. Literally, I think I volunteered for two shoots and the next thing you know, he started handing me checks. So it was just like, and that’s kind of how I learned the most and been on some short film shoots and just observing. And the Internet’s the greatest resource in the world, if you can cut through the, all the stuff that’s out there. So it was just like self-taught.
Ashley: So how did you get that first movie off the ground? I guess The Devil in Me was your first film. And how was that financed? How did you write the script without a lot of experience? It sounds like you maybe made a few connections in the business doing some of this production work.
Greg: All of our films have been self produced, like financed. I haven’t been able to break the barrier other than doing the typical doctors, lawyers, friends, six degrees of separation sort of thing. So, but I had an opportunity. I did a bunch of shooting at the 2010 Olympics and I just came back with an okay chunk of change because there was no time to spend it, I’ll tell you that. And I just said, “I can put this in my bank account and just watch it magically disappear. Or I said, I can be the big investor in a movie that I haven’t even written yet.” At that point, Kingdom Come was the one we were trying to get moving and we just didn’t have the money to do that.
So I ended up writing Devil Seed over the course of about a month. And then I think we were shooting it maybe another month and a half later.
Ashley: Hmm, wow. Fast.
Greg: Yeah. So these all… everyone that have so far got made have kind of, with the exception of Kingdom Come, has been a whirlwind kind of. Like this new one. The lockdown started back a year ago, March and I was like, I had another project Jane that I wanted to, that’s what I was trying to get going. So it’s my favorite script ever written, but the lockdown and the pandemic happened and it was just like, “Okay, what’s gonna happen?” So I just started freaking myself out and I said, you know what? I started making some calls and I said… I called Ry Barrett, who’s the lead in this, and I said, “If I write a script for you, would you be willing to do it [laughs]?” I wrote it in about under two weeks, I think, and same sort of deal.
We just scrounged and went to… got little chunks of money here and there. And we were shooting probably a month later. So it’s either wait for stuff to happen or make stuff happen. That’s the camp I’m in. You could, in this business, you could sit around spending your entire life just waiting for stuff to happen and you kind of got to make your own path.
Ashley: Yeah. I’m totally with you. So let’s talk about building that team. It sounds like you got this cinematographer… and I noticed on your IMDb page, you’ve worked with a lot of the same people on multiple projects. So talk about that a little bit. Number one, I’d like to hear your thoughts on, you went from essentially, it sounds like, being a production assistant with this guy to kind of moving up the ranks. At some point you must’ve told him, “Hey, I got a script I wanna direct.” So how did you make that leap from production assistant to director? And give us a little, maybe a little insight into sort of your approach. Do you just become friends with these people? At what time is it appropriate for the PA to say, “Hey guys, I’m actually a director?”
Greg: It’s one of those things that I think if you’re gonna be a director or a decent director, you need to know how everything works. You just do. Because you’re basically the captain of a ship and the more you know going into anything, the better off you’re gonna be. Because it’s just like, we all wear a lot of hats in these things, because it’s just there’s no money and no manpower. Right? So it’s just, everybody’s got a… I’ll get coffee. I have no shame. I don’t care. But it’s just one of those things, learn as much as you can. That’s all I did. Like I approached Gary, like from day one, it was about a script. It had nothing… it was that coffee meeting was, “Yeah, can I volunteer, but B, I’m trying to get this thing going. If I can get enough money together, will you shoot it for me?”
So that was sort of, and then I ended up eventually just becoming a DOP myself. So, learning every aspect of it, like he’s taught me everything I know. And so I worked on a bunch of corporate commercial and that music video sort of stuff, just as a DOP, sometimes director.
Ashley: Got you. So I’d be curious to hear your thoughts too about, and I wanna be clear for the audience, before we started the interview, you mentioned it was London, Canada, not London, UK. So you’re Canadian, up in Canada. But let’s talk a little bit about sort of local opportunities. I get a ton of emails from people, all different parts of the world. And there always seems to be obviously this sort of fascination with Hollywood. “Oh, I got to get my script to Hollywood. I got to get to Hollywood to make a movie.” It sounds like you’re actually building a team locally and finding some of these opportunities. It sounds like it was a little bit happenstance, you met this DP. But how did you sort of build some of this team?
How did you meet other local filmmakers? Is just doing all of this production work, you were able to build that team?
Greg: That’s pretty much how it works. It’s like you meet somebody on a shoot and then you go, okay, that’s… and this is my grandfather speaking here. Like he’s always said, “Surround yourself with people that have what you lack.” That’s the best way to approach it. And it was just kind of the thing that, these shoots here and there, I just picked up people and just sunk my teeth into them, so to speak. And just said, “I got this thing coming I’m working on, would you be interested if we ended up doing it?” So kind of built that way. Like you got to think as far as screenwriting goes, you kind of got to think about yourself in two camps. Who are you writing for?
Are you writing for you as a director or producer or whatever, or are you writing just to sell? I’ve never been the one to write just to sell. I’m always… I’m storyboarding in my head as I’m writing. I never started a script until I at the very least know the ending. Because I write backwards. It’s the best way to do it, in my opinion anyways. It’s just, I’ve tried the other way and it’s just like, I find myself meandering as if I don’t know where I’m going. So as long as I got that point of where I’m going, I can always make my past however I want to get there. But I’m useless until I know that ending.
Ashley: Got you. So let’s, I think this is a good time. Let’s segue into your latest film, it’s called Open Your Eyes. Maybe to start out, you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is this film all about?
Greg: This was the hard… the marketing thing on this was so hard because the whole movie is just a spoiler. It’s basically, it’s kind of autobiographical. It’s about a screenwriter that’s just struggling to write his next screenplay because of some traumatic experience, you just don’t know what happened. And then all the strange stuff starts to happen and you’re kind of wondering, is this a horror, a thriller, is it a supernatural thing going on? But we hopefully put a bow on it at the end that ties it all out, so…
Ashley: Got you. And where did this idea come from? What was sort of the genesis for this idea?
Greg: The feeling I started having when we first got locked down here. It was just that being isolated. And that, screenwriters, we should be built for that to a certain degree, right? It’s you’ve got this, you spend so much time just by yourself. I’m a wreck when I’m writing a screenplay. Like nobody wants to be near me. Because it’s a wake up to write, and go to sleep, wake up, write. So wake up in the middle of the night, write. So it’s one of those things that, it was just kind of how I was feeling, and I just kind of… with Jane, I knew Jane was gonna get back burner because I was just starting to try to find financing for that. And I even went through and tried to break it down to see if it could be done during… with all the restrictions and whatnot.
So that was part of it. The other part of it was, I’m just going, “Okay, the little guys now, this is the biggest opportunity for the little guys, this whole pandemic thing.” Because the studios do not know how to get their head around making a movie with less than 500 people. And it took them a better part of a year to kind of figure it out. So it’s just, I saw an opportunity here and it was just like, we could sit around like everybody else and stay locked up or we can do something creative. And that’s kind of how it happened.
Ashley: Got you. So let’s talk about your writing process a little bit. Where do you typically write and when do you typically write? Do you go to a coffee shop, do you need that ambient noise? Do you write in the morning, at night? What does your sort of just writing routine look like?
Greg: I do, as of late, the last couple two or three scripts, it’s been coffee shops. I kind of have a local one here that they let me sit there all day, don’t bother me, which is great. A lot of times it was writing from home, but I just, there’s too many distractions. So I found that just going and getting, having these distractions as you’re writing, just like you said, ambient noise, it makes all the difference in the world. And like I said, I don’t start a script until I have the vast majority of it in my head and, because I find it very painful, the writing process.
Ashley: Yeah. No doubt. Let’s talk about that outlining. It sounds like you don’t do a lot of outlining. From your description, you’re kind of just outlining in your head, you figure out the ending and then work backwards. But talk about that. How much time do you spend just thinking about the story and mulling it over? And what is your preparation, and then how much time do you typically spend in final draft writing description and characters and stuff?
Greg: No, a ton. Like my head is turned into a giant storyboard machine. I’ll know like when I’m writing, I’m writing shots, I’m not writing my… Basically, the way I look at it is I’m writing… because I’m the one wanting to do these with the exception of a couple. It’s kind of like I tell myself, “Okay, I’ve kind of gotten the story already in my head. I have to write the script for everybody else.” So it kind of puts an onus on me to go, “Okay, nobody’s gonna understand,” because as far as I’m concerned, once it’s in my head, I’m ready to go. Like I could literally know the shots I need, this and that. So it’s a weird process, because and again, it’s like, I’ve determined myself that I’m writing for myself and not others.
So it’s just, I look at it differently than somebody say… Like I’ll never write, I’ll never sit there and write it’s raining out. Because I know rain costs money. It’s just like if I’m writing for somebody else it’s raining, it’s a snow storm, it’s whatever. I don’t care. But for me, it’s like I kind of know what I have access to. I stop in the middle of scripts and call people. Like Gray Matter, I needed… before I wrote the bus part of it, I called Dwight because I know we did some corporates for the local bus company here and I just said, called him up, stopped, “What’s the odds of us getting a bus?” He goes, “About, I don’t know, 80 percent.” I go, “Okay, good. Thanks,” click. I wrote the bus.
Ashley: [laughs] Yeah. Put it in there. We got a bus.
Greg: I couldn’t write a bus unless I know I can get a bus. So that’s kind of the way I approach everything. So as a writer, I’m always with that director’s angle coming at me.
Ashley: Yeah. I also think it’s little producer tip that people should really pay attention was, it’s only 80 percent. You’ll write it in your script. You didn’t make that extra, because it’s 80 percent of the work to actually book and really find out. And so sometimes you do have to just take a little leap of faith, but you did a little due diligence to kind of get you past that point, which is, yeah, that’s not just writing. Yeah, that’s actually producing. Let’s talk about your development process a little bit. It sounds like you had your one actor on board early on and then you have this team of people that you’ve worked with. How do you get the script out to them? Do you get notes, do you get a first draft. And then is it a pretty clean first draft?
Or what does sort of your development process look like? How do you take notes, who do you get notes from, and then how do you implement those notes?
Greg: Basically, I would never stop writing if I re-read any of my scripts. So I have other people read it for me. So that’s kind of where I get my notes from, the other crew members. People I trust with their kind of creative input. I’ll go back, I’ll get… So I’ll send out the script as soon as the kind of the first draft’s done. I usually no more than three kind of deal. Because being the writer-director, there’s a lot of play on set, we’ll play around with it a bit. I’d send it out, get people’s input, what they do like, what they don’t like. And then if there’s something that they don’t like I’ll kind of weigh it, I’ll evaluate it and then I’ll go in and just change that section. Because if I went through and tried to proofread my own scripts and all that, like I said, I’d never finish.
Because I would just continually change, “That’s not good. Got to change this, got to change that.” So maybe that’s a bad thing, good thing, I don’t know, but it’s worked so far [laughs]. Yeah. Then if there’s any scripts I’m sending out, I have Caroline, which she’s part of Matchbox that she just, she’s the grammar queen, spelling. So I’ll often, anything I’m gonna send out, like when I’m looking for money or whatnot, I’ll have her do a polish. Just clean grammar and the sort of thing, something that I didn’t write properly, or it didn’t make sense. But she’ll go through, clean it up, then I get it back. Then I kind of got a solid script to start sending out.
Ashley: Got you. I’m curious how you approach something, screenplay structure. And also just in terms of sort of the genre requirements. This is sort of a psychological thriller. How do you approach that? Let’s start with structure. Are you kind of the Sid Field, Blake Snyder, where there’s a real rigid sort of screenplay structure or are you more intuitive? And then ultimately, as I said, are there some genre tropes that you kind of try and play in, subvert, and what does that look like for you?
Greg: What I like… as I don’t like pandering to an audience. I like people to be able to… like I’m not gonna spoon-feed anybody. And that’s the advantage of starting with your ending, knowing where you’re going. So you can take as many wicked turns as you want, as you’re writing and throw on the red herrings in there. I tried, as a movie goer, you can have a great movie, but the ending, if the ending’s not there, that’s always… so many movies have let me down with ending. And that’s kind of where I came from the camp of, “Okay, I’m gonna start with the ending.” I’ve got a solid ending and I’ll work my way back and then hopefully, the payoff is so much greater if you know where you’re going. That’s the number one thing.
I’ve had 200-page scripts, just me pandering first draft. And it’s just like, since I’ve been doing it this way, it’s just 90, a hundred pages just… because you know, because right then you write the third act, and you know, you put that pivotal point by going into act three. And the other ones just kind of find themselves. They just do. I don’t know if that’s just me or watching so many movies, but that’s kind of how I’ve experienced it.
Ashley: Got you. Okay. So let’s talk about the production a little bit. I’d be real curious. It sounds like you kind of had things rolling, as I said, or as you said, the pandemic was kind of closing things down. But let’s talk about just the team you had to actually shoot this. What do you have on set? You have a DP, an AC, a couple of grips. I’d just be curious to kind of see what your actual team looks like when you’re shooting.
Greg: On this one or the other ones?
Ashley: This one. Let’s just use Open Your Eyes as the example. Because this is a really paired down, you’re shooting during COVID, and I think that’s not a bad model for people that are starting out.
Greg: It was a great learning experience. I bet you, we were probably one of the first ones to actually… we started on May, 28th of 2020. We were in the… we always work with small crews. Kingdom Come was the biggest, but again, on the grand scheme of things, it was they’re not big, right? But It’s just, we have enough hands. Everybody will, still wears multiple hats. But on this one, it was like Ontario set a limit of five people. So we basically all quarantined together. That’s kind of how we did it. We kept the actors separate. They were kind of in their own bubble, and the crew was our own. We had six people on crew. So to keep our five, we… our poor sound guy ran cables into, because we shot in my place right here, where we ran cables.
He sat in his van and mixed the whole movie from outside. We let him mask up, come in, sanitize and use the bathroom, like that. And then he was right out. We had all our meals outside in the parking lot. We just, we thought that the biggest thing about this, is we got a small crew and the best kind of marketing thing, is all of us coming out of this safe. Nobody gets sick, and we did it.
Ashley: Yeah. That’s fantastic.
Greg: I cooked for the crew every, almost every meal. When I didn’t have time, it was like literally order food in, pizza, or whatever. So yeah, it was quite the experience.
Ashley: Got you. And what are those six people that you have? So you’ve got yourself, a DP, an AC, and then a couple of groups of G and E type guys. Do you have a costume, a makeup?
Greg: Actors did their own makeup. There was me, which I was, I would do everything as well. Like I’d help light, I’d help do this. If stuff needed to be moved, I’d do it. We had the, Gary was the DP, Steve was the sound guy and we had two utility people, basically Mike Down and Kevin Labonte. Mike Down, he’s just one of those guys, kind of like me in the corporate world, just knows how to do a little bit of everything. So we relied on him so heavily and then Kevin kind of came in as backup support. So, it was tough going, but we had minimal locations. So we could take our time, which was nice. So it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. And it was just like as all film shoots are, you kind of become a tight knit little family, but this was a small family.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah, yeah. For sure. So when can people see this film? Do you know when it’s coming out or what the release schedule will be like?
Greg: June 1st is we’re being released in Canada and the US and it’s, I think it’s pretty much everywhere. So VOD, Blu-ray, DVD, On Demand, like through online, Best Buy, that sort of thing. iTunes it’ll be up for pre-order very soon. So, yeah.
Ashley: Got you. And I just, at the end of the interview I just like to ask the guest, anything you’re comfortable sharing, Twitter, Facebook, a blog, I’ll round up for the show notes. Do you use any social media?
Greg: We’re on pretty much Facebook, Instagram. I couldn’t tell you. I can email them to you [laughs].
Ashley: Yeah. Got you. So, well, I really appreciate this coming on and talking with us. We’ll definitely round that stuff up for the show notes. Good luck with this film and good luck with your future films.
Greg: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.
Ashley: Hey, thank you. We’ll talk to you later.
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 and producer Erik Bork. He’s been on the show before in Episode #82 and #245. So do check out those episodes if you wanna learn a little bit more about him and his background. Eric was a writer on the HBO series Band Of Brothers. He’s also been involved in a number of other TV and film projects.
He wrote a book that focuses on the premise and concept of a script, and he’s created a course to go along with that. So he’s coming on next week to talk about his new screen writing course. And he’ll also be here to talk about some specific writing tips. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s the show. Thank you for listening.