This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 391: With Filmmaker Michael P. Blevins and Actor Ford Austin.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #391 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, Michael P. Blevins and actor-producer, Ford Austin. They just did a horror feature called Digging to Death. We talk about that film and how they put it all together, as well as some of their previous projects. 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 #391. 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, Michael P. Blevins and actor-producer, Ford Austin. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Michael and Ford to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you guys coming on the show with me today.
Ford: Hey, Ashley. Thanks for [inaudible 00:01:42].
Michael: Yeah. Thanks for having us.
Ashley: Yeah. Thank you. 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? Ford, why don’t you go first and then Michael, you can follow up with your origin story after Ford.
Ford: Sure thing. I grew up in Oklahoma City and Dallas, Texas. I got into the business when I was one year old. My parents put me in a movie that they were producing with Robert Lansing called 30 Dangerous Seconds. That movie is available on YouTube in its entirety, 30 Dangerous Seconds. And I was one year old and I’m this baby in a scene. Obviously I don’t remember it, but I’ve seen the footage. Then after that, they put us all in… as children, we were put into a casting service for extras casting that would book you back on shows and movies and stuff. And in high school, I was able to get put into a program where I left school my senior year at about 9:30 in the morning to go and audition for projects and meet casting directors and do photos.
Then after that, I went to college for theater at Oklahoma City University undergrad. Then I think my first big thing I did there after kind of towards in college, was a music video for Toby Keith called A Little Less Talk A Lot More Action, and I got to be the star of that so it was pretty fun. Then I moved up to New York City in Philadelphia and did a lot of theater, soap operas, and commercials, and got my masters in acting out there. Then I said, “I got to go to LA because it’s where movies are made.” And I went to Los Angeles in ‘99 and just started acting at the… I’m sorry, at The Groundlings and studying improv there. Then I got cast in Pearl Harbor and worked on a bunch of other stuff, started directing and writing and producing my own feature films and TV shows.
Then after a long period of time, I kind of just developed myself and I was on my way, making a living as an actor and a director. Then I had met Mike Blevins, amazing filmmaker, and two of us never looked back. We really liked collaborating on stuff and lifting each other through the industry. Now I’m actually back in Oklahoma City where it all started, where I am helping people to build the industry up to a place where people here don’t have to leave to go anywhere, but they can make movies, TV shows in Oklahoma City. So like we talked… a couple of people took over the convention center downtown, which is 1.3 million square feet of production space, and they’ve turned it into a functioning TV, movie studio, motion picture studio. And we’re selling it that way.
Then I’ve got another couple of friends that bought an elementary school with an 8,000 square foot gymnasium that we’ve converted into a soundstage. And we’re building standing sets over there and teaching people how to be on set, and how to work on movies. So it’s really, really kind of, it’s a great full circle thing that from where I was born until I went and worked in Hollywood, in New York, and now I’m back in Oklahoma City making movies there.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. Well, great. Any Oklahoma City filmmakers or people that are interested in doing that, definitely should reach out to you. Michael, what’s your origin story. Maybe you can kind of get us up to speed. Bring us up to the point where you and Ford started to meet and collaborate on stuff.
Michael: Yeah. So I’m from Kansas City, Missouri, and I was interested in making films when I was about 17 years old, and so I decided that that’s what I was going to do. I was going to make movies. And went to college out there and didn’t really learn a whole lot about it, just kind of made my own little backyard movies there with friends. Then we… I ended up going to, moving out to LA after I graduated college, and kind of started as a PA just working really hard. And someone saw me like lifting sandbags and asked if I had gripped, and I was like, “No, but I’ll learn, do whatever.” And literally climbed the ladder from PA to grip, to gaffer, to owning a lighting and camera rail company, to telling people that I can produce, since I produced my projects back home, and had the means, like the materials, the gear to do a lot of cool things for not a lot of money considering it was all in-house.
I built up my producing resume pretty well and got to a point where I knew my calling was to do movies and features. So I was like, this is it. I just got to do it, so I made it smart. But when I was in LA, actually, before I moved to LA I was working, had worked with a guy named Steve Williams who had mentioned Ford, and I’d never met Ford or heard of Ford, but told me about Ford’s movies. So I watched Dahmer vs Gacy and thought it was cool. And I mean, it was so long ago. But basically at one point I’m in LA, I’m I think a key grip or something like that on this show and we’re at lunch and this guy comes in and starts handing out crew paperwork. I look up and it’s freaking Ford Austin.
So we just met serendipitously on set as he was producing and I was crew, that was a movie called Heels. And yeah, we a few years later, I just felt like after seeing his work and knowing how convicted of a filmmaker and an artist Ford is, that I’d cast him in this movie.
Ashley: Got you. And just to touch on something, I know there’s a lot of people that are getting ready to make that move as filmmakers from their city in the United States to Los Angeles. Do you have a couple of quick tips for those people? How did you get that first PA job? Is there anything that maybe you could offer to people that are gonna be landing here in LA here in the next few months?
Michael: Yeah, absolutely. When I came out there, I basically just said I would work for free for anybody. And I went to, I was like, well, where would have… where it’d be like, where filmmakers would go to congregate. And I felt like maybe like rental houses. So I got a job at the Wooden Nickel, which is kind of like a small, independent, gear vendor. And people were coming in, and I was just doing their vendor order stuff, like… just the super boring stuff. But I realized that everybody that was coming in were filmmakers, and they were like independent filmmakers. So I was like, I made up these business cards that said my name and that I would PA for free, and handed them out like candy.
And I got a couple of just people were like, “Come on up! PA, PA for free.” And I just met a few people. And then…
Ford: I’m surprised everybody didn’t take you up on that offer, that’s an amazing idea.
Michael: I got a lot of…
Ashley: Yeah, that is a great tip. Yeah.
Michael: And then I ended up getting a job as… like my first paid job came from, it was a guy named Matt Laumann, who’s a big time producer now. He gave me an opportunity for this British feature. It was really small potatoes, it was 70 bucks a day for like 14-hour days, which is rough and probably even then illegal. But like it was a British thing, and it was…you can’t be, you have to be humble and you can’t come out thinking that you’re not gonna start from the bottom. So I said, “Screw it. I’d rather make 70 bucks a day doing something that I love, than make a hundred bucks a day doing something that I hate, or even more money doing something that I hate.”
But that opportunity came from a thing that were Matt Laumann had hired me for free. So it was just that move got me into the network, and then I was able to take advantage of all the opportunities and networking that that move happened.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. That is an excellent tip. So let’s dig into your latest film, Digging to Death. Maybe to start out, you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is this film all about?
Michael: The film is about a guy named David, played by Mr. Austin here, that moves into a kind of a creepy old house that is a fixer-upper. Soon as he’s digging his septical, he finds a box, a big wooden box that has $3 million in it and a recently deceased body. So he has to make the moral decision, whether he’s going to report the body and lose all the money, or hide the money and re-bury the body. So he does what we’d all do. He hides the money in the house, and he ends up getting stalked by the corpse.
Ashley: So what is the genre? Because you were going sort of in a thriller-y direction, and now it’s more like supernatural horror.
Michael: Yeah. It’s like a supernatural… it’s more honestly like psychological thriller with some mystery elements.
Ashley: Where did this idea come from? What was sort of the genesis for it?
Michael: I was living in this other house in LA and I knew I was moving to this, the house that was actually in the movie. So I was like, well, this is a great house for a location. I could write kind of a bottle movie for this location. And I was like, “Well, what sells?” Well, horror movie sells pretty, pretty well. That’d be a good leap. So I just made that, kind of connected the dots. So like making it a scary house, but what makes it scary? Well, it’s got to be something that he finds. It can’t just be like the dude showing up into a creepy house that looks new. It’s got to be something that he finds, and then it’s like in the walls or maybe it’s in the basement or in the attic or in the backyard.
So it was like we put a scary guy in the… could have been anything, just antagonist that he finds in the box. Then it’s like, what would make it interesting is having a moral dilemma with the money. So that’s kind of where that all happened from.
Ashley: Got you. So Ford, maybe we can get some of your insights on the script and the writing. What are some of the things that you really liked about this script and then taking even a step back, just in a more general sense. Again, as an actor, I get tons of screenwriters emailing me saying stuff like, “Hey, how do I get this actor attached?” Maybe you can just tell us what are some of the things about Digging to Death, that you really liked? And just in a more general sense, what are some things that you think screenwriters should do more of, and maybe there’s even some mistakes that you see screenwriters making?
Ford: The thing that I really liked about the script from an actor’s standpoint and completely selfish one, anytime you’re an actor looking at something that someone sent you, your agent sends it over, or the director or producers get the script to you in person, either at an office or in your hand at a party or something, when you read it, first of all, is the journey of the screenplay, is it a good journey? Is there an arc to the journey? And that, I mean, that’s kind of the basis thing for everything. Another thing that you really want, which was taught to me by my mentor, Martin Landau at the Actors Studio, is you wanna make sure that each different character has its own individual voice.
What that means is, a lot of times, young screenwriters, people who haven’t written very long, their voices of all their characters will come out sounding very similar. And there’s not a big difference between how the antagonist or the protagonist, or even like brothers in a movie or children and their parents will sound. They’ll all kind of have like the same dialogue, the same style, the same speech pattern. And at that point, it takes an amazing casting director and an amazing cast to break those voices apart and make them individual and wholly unique. But if your characters are different and individual from the point of just reading the script at a basic table read, if they jump off the page in a unique way compared to each other, you’re getting ahead of it on a really good foot.
The other thing that you look for as an actor or that I look for as an actor, is every scene that I have, does it have a beginning, a middle and an end? Does it have an arc to that scene? A lot of times, sometimes you’ll read things like the scenes are just kind of there, it’s like a placeholder to mark time to get you up to a feature length screenplay. And if that’s the case, you just kind of get rid of the scene. Just cut it out or figure out as an actor, collaborating with the writer and the director, how do I fill this scene that’s really not working, that really doesn’t have a beginning, a middle and an end? It doesn’t have an arc. It doesn’t have something in the scene that moves the plot forward just a little bit, you know what I’m saying?
Like if you don’t have a scene that’s gonna move the plot forward, why do you have the scene? Just so you can sort of have a little fun with dialogue? Well, there’s only like a handful of writing filmmakers in the world that can do that. One of them that I know of is Dan Harmon, another one is Judd Apatow. And I think that everybody else is like, you have to forward the momentum of the movie, the journey of the screenplay with each scene. A really great example is anything that Spielberg has done. You watching these old Spielberg movies and any Indiana Jones film, each scene does something to further the plot. I mean, it’s like obvious, it’s blatant and it’s wonderful.
So when I look at that as an actor, I know if I don’t see those things, if I don’t see an overall arc of the movie, a journey of the movie, a journey of my character within the journey of the movie, different sounding characters have an overall arc from scene to scene and scenes that’s moving forwards, then I know it’s gonna be an uphill battle making the movie.
Ashley: And Michael, I’ll flip that around. I think that’s interesting what Ford is talking about there. Did you have Ford in mind for this role as you were writing it, and how does that influence the writing, the voices? Are these actors, the actors you’re using, actors you’ve worked with before, so you kind of know their voice and you try and put that into the writing? Or was it more just not tailored to Ford, but any actor could fill in there? Maybe talk about that a little bit, Michael. Just what was sort of the voices of some of these characters? Did you have some of these actors already in mind?
Michael: Yeah, I definitely had like Rachel Alig in mind and Tom Fitzpatrick who played the corpse so well. Definitely had him them mind. I wasn’t sure who I was writing David for necessarily. I had a couple people, kind of Ford was one of them, just sort of thoughts, but at the same time there wasn’t it… it wasn’t one of those where I was like, “Okay, I got a guy, he’s a buddy, I know he’d do it. So I’m just gonna go ahead and make, convict myself to this character being kind of with these quirks, make it a little easier where I can see this person having a fun time, making this a challenge for them, but it would fit.” It was one of those like, I just need to make this character sort of get through the story at this juncture and then let whoever I bring in sort of fill in the holes as far as what they bring to the table. And Ford brought a lot of good stuff to the table on this one.
Ashley: Maybe you can take us through your writing process a little bit. Where do you typically write and when do you typically write? Do you need to go to Starbucks to have that ambient noise? Do you have a home office? Do you write in the morning, in the evening? What does your writing schedule look like?
Michael: It honestly just depends on how I’m feeling. I really don’t like… I know that there’s the school of thought that even if you don’t have the inspiration, if you just sit and start writing something, anything, it will… something will happen. Which I think is a great idea if you’re gonna try and start like page one, but like, oh, I wanna get a script out, but I’m not like super inspired. Yeah. Maybe that works. But I feel like most writers get that click, that idea, where they’re just like, “Oh my God!” And then they got to go and they got to write it down. Or at least they got to put it in their phone so when they can write it down later it’s there. And like for me, I’ve been at points where I’ve had that aha moment, when I didn’t have a chance to write it down right away, but the more I thought about it, the more I was able to really iron out all the details of that aha moment and really, really make it work.
But I’ve found that like, it’s either when I’m inspired or wildly enough late at night. It could be anywhere that’s quiet, like my living room or my office, or I just like to just sort of be able to go into the zone and it just be silent and just what I’m writing feels like I’m watching the movie already. And if it feels like when it… because I’m not a night owl at all, at all, at all. But if I stay up until four in the morning writing, I can get through maybe 20 pages. Like it wouldn’t surprise me to do that.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. So let’s talk about a little bit of the collaboration. At what point, Michael, did you bring Ford into this? Did you have a pretty polished draft before you approached him? Did you approach him with a first or second draft that still needed a little more rewriting? And then how did the development work between Ford and you?
Michael: By the time I approached Ford, I’d had a pretty… I think I was on draft eight of that. So it was pretty polished up. Like all the characters had all of their little nuances at that point. I think that’s why Ford agreed initially, was because he enjoyed the script, and since we hadn’t worked together, he hadn’t seen what I was capable of necessarily bringing to the table with an unfinished script. So having that nice, polished script I know he really liked. But yeah, we… I know there were times where Ford would reference things that he had learned at the Actors Studio that I really liked. And it was really cool because it was a collaboration, which I think is really healthy between directors and actors, is it’s not just supposed to be this.
It’s kind of what the movie ends up wanting it to be, and it’s because everybody is bringing their A game to the table, but not everybody’s A game looks the same. So it’s cool to see what someone else’s A game might look like, and it actually might be a better flavor than yours. And so that was a lot of Ford’s involvement in that.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. So, okay. So you have a script that’s pretty polished. You’re starting to get a cast. What is your steps then to try and raise money? Did you try and just send it to like the typical place, Lionsgate and try and get some funding that way through more established production companies? Did you try and just raise the money independently? Maybe you can talk about that a little bit about raising the money and getting this thing into production.
Michael: Yeah. So I had found a couple of hundred thousand dollars through a producer who had made films in the past through finding outsourced funds. And he actually found a hundred thousand dollars from a club owner and a hundred thousand dollars from a magazine owner that were both gonna throw in. And they were like, “Okay, so this is the scoop. We’re gonna change the title, probably change the ending a little bit,” which I feel was stupid because that was the best part. But they were also like, but then they were like, “We want you to have a co-director.” And I was like, “I could have done the other two maybe, but this co-director thing is a deal breaker for me.”
They kind of, they fought me on it and then finally they’re like, “Look, the money is gonna go away.” I was like, “Then, sorry, I guess it’s going away.” Because I wasn’t going to settle to like… Because honestly, I guess if your listeners aren’t familiar with the co-director scam, if your financier puts a co-director in the movie, they’re basically like a blonde stooge at that point. They’re just someone there to protect the money, but then they also feel like they can throw in some creative input, even though most of the time writers and writer is the director. These co-directors can throw in some creative input and blah, blah, blah. So when something is good, they take half the credit, but when something is bad, they step off and then you’re responsible for the screw up or whatever, they’re not, they don’t take half of the fault.
So I highly recommend that anybody that’s listening, if they ever have an opportunity to get money in with the sacrifice of having a co-director, find other money. It’s worth it. I actually had to take… I said that I, I was a grip and then I was a gaffer and I was, I learned that the gaffer that showed up with the trucks made more money than the gaffer that didn’t show up with the trucks. So I put together lighting packages that I was familiar with and made decent money that way and actually decided I was like, “You know what, I’m gonna take all the revenue from this lighting company, and from 2017, and I’m gonna make this movie.” And I just… It was rough. I definitely was not expecting to pay for it myself necessarily.
But it was a very odd way to raise funding, but it worked and it did it. And honestly, I can say that if you do, if you can maintain your IP and your ownership without having to get money, even if you’re paying for it yourself, if it’s like you own it where you’re getting, you’re the only one getting checks from the distributor, is the most fiscally rewarding way to go if it’s possible, you know?
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I mean, it’s… congratulations, sticking to your guns and seeing it through. Do you still have the lighting company in Burbank? Are you still part of that?
Michael: No, it’s in Granada Hills. It’s called T-Rex Lighting and Camera.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. Yeah. So if there’s any filmmakers out there that wanna hook up with that, that’s a nice old plug too.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. So what advice do you guys have just as we wrap the interview up? What just sort of general advice do you guys have for people that are looking to break into the business? And maybe Ford you can go first and then Michael, if you have any parting wisdom for writers, that’d be awesome.
Ford: My advice is to just make your own movie. Just write a script for yourself and start shooting it. The secret to being a filmmaker is to make films. And the only reason that you aren’t a filmmaker is because you’re not making films. If you’re funded or not it doesn’t matter, as long as you make them and you figure out what is, if you’re trying to sell it, figure out what’s sellable about it and then target that distributor.
Ashley: Michael, what about you? You have any parting wisdom for our writers?
Michael: I’d love to say that, write what you want to watch. Don’t write or make what you think other people are going to want to see. That no one wants to see that, no one wants to read that. People wanna read and people wanna watch your idea, your fresh, cool idea, because if it entertains you, then if that’s all you, then your work’s done. And wildly enough, I feel like when you stick to your guns and you write something that you love and you wanna see, and that you think is badass, or you think is moving, or you think is important, that’s when people gravitate towards your project or your movie. But as soon as you start writing stuff that you think, “Oh, people are gonna love this, or people are gonna love that,” you either end up with crap or a Hallmark movie, which is debatably could be the same thing [laughs].
Ford: Yeah, but either way, it’s still a sellable thing.
Michael: Yeah. Sellable or not, I’m just saying, write what you wanna see. Don’t try and write for what you think the crowds are gonna want. Write what you think is cool.
Ashley: How can people see Digging to Death? Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Michael: Yeah. It’s actually out right now on DVD and On Demand like digital. So it’s basically everywhere right now, except for Netflix. And I think we’ll find out here in a few months, if they’re gonna pick it up. That would be awesome.
Ashley: Nice. What’s the best way for people to keep up with what you guys are doing? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing. And just so the audience can tell who’s speaking, Ford, why don’t you go first and then Michael, anything you’re comfortable sharing, you can follow up after Ford.
Ford: Yeah. If anybody wants to find out about what I’m doing, they can just go to Facebook or Twitter, @angrybabymonkey is my handle, all spelled out, no spaces or dashes. And you can follow me on IMDb and just look for the pink unicorn picture and…
Ashley: I did see that.
Ford: My contact is always there as well. So if any independent filmmakers or people that wanna make their films need a producer or an actor to star in their movie, they should just reach out to me through my IMDb page.
Ashley: Okay. Perfect. Perfect. What about you, Michael?
Michael: Yeah. I stay up on Instagram. So you can hit me up on Instagram at @blevfilm_la. And yeah, I’m the same way. If I can help anybody achieve their dreams or help make something happen, I have the resources we can make some magic.
Ashley: Perfect. Perfect. I really appreciate you guys coming on. We’ll round all that stuff up for the show notes so people can click on, click over to it. I appreciate you guys taking some time out of your day and coming on the show. Good luck with this film and good luck with all your future films as well.
Michael: And thank you so much. Appreciate it.
Ford: Thank you for having us. Good luck.
Ashley: Hey, thank you guys.
Ashley: Bye- bye. We’ll talk to you later.
SYS’s From Concept to Completion Screenwriting Course is now available. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/screenwritingcourse. It will take you through every part of writing a screenplay, coming up with a concept, outlining, writing the opening pages, the first act, second act, third act, and then rewriting. And then there’s even a module at the end on marketing your screenplay once it’s polished and ready to be sent out. We’re offering this course in two different versions. The first version you get the course, plus you get three analyses from an SYS reader. You’ll get one analysis on your outline and then you’ll get two analyses on your first draft of your screenplay. This is just our introductory price.
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I will, of course link to the course in the show notes, and I will put a link to the course on the homepage up in the right hand side bar. On the next episode of the podcast, I’m gonna be interviewing producer, Suzanne DeLaurentiis who’s doing a new show called Suzanne’s Saturday Night Scares, which showcases classic horror films, and she brings some of the cast on to talk to them. But Suzanne is also a seasoned producer and we dig into a number of her projects, how she’s able to get those projects produced, how she found the scripts, how she hired writers, and ultimately how she’s been able to work with writers throughout and gives a lot of great tips to writers and what she’s looking for as a producer. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s the show. Thank you for listening.