This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 396: With Screenwriter Eric Pearson .
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #396 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing screenwriter, Eric Pearson, who just wrote the new Scarlet Johansson film, Black Widow. We obviously talk a great deal about that film and his writing on it, but he’s a writer who really rose up through the ranks of the Marvel writing system. So we talk about how he got into that and worked on various Marvel projects before Black Widow. 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 #396. 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 a screenplay in that guide. I’ll teach you how to write a professional logline and query letter, and how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. Really, it’s everything you need to know to sell your screenplay, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing screenwriter, Eric Pearson. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Eric to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Eric: Thanks for having me.
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?
Eric: Well, I grew up in a town about 30 minutes outside of Boston, Massachusetts. And yeah, I started doing theater in high school. I thought I could maybe be an actor. I’m really bad at it as it turns out. So fortunately, I mean, we had a pretty comprehensive theater department there, which was really great. So I was able to learn a few other things, wrote some short plays and I don’t know, figured… I knew that that was a world that I wanted to be in, telling stories, and I figured that that was just the better move for me.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. So what were some of those steps once you were out of high school? Did you go to film school? Did you get a screenwriting major? Maybe talk us through some of those steps. What was after high school to actually turn this into a career?
Eric: Yeah. Well, I held onto the being an actor dream for too long. I auditioned for a few conservatories for college, I got rejected from all of them. But in kind of a stroke of dumb luck, I noticed that NYU had, in the Tisch School of the Arts, had a specific writing department in their art school. So I randomly just decided, well, instead of it, just to kind of hedge my bets, I’m going to submit some of my short stories and short plays. And when I got rejected from all the acting schools I actually got scholarships to go to NYU. I was like, well, that’s an encouraging sign. So yeah, I was at Tisch for undergrad and really kind of was able to get an understanding of how this actually could be a job, writing movies, writing TV. And as soon as I graduated I just drove right out to Los Angeles.
And actually one of my professors got me a great job to start. It only lasted about a year and a half when I first got out, but I was a reader for DreamWorks when I first arrived, back when there were more reader jobs. For those who don’t know, a reader basically is just as scripts get submitted, someone reads them, and basically does a book report and you get paid per script. So that was a great way to kind of get a good sense of what’s out there for material and what other people are reading and what’s going on as well as make some money from that. That got me started and yeah, then I was just in the pack amongst all the other struggling writers out there.
Ashley: So let’s talk about that. Then you’re in LA, you’re starting to read a lot of scripts, building network. Some of your early credits as a screenwriter were Marvel one-shot shorts. Maybe you can talk about those. How did you go from reading scripts to getting some of those early gigs with Marvel? Did you get an agent first, were you able to break in without an agent? Maybe talk us through that a little bit.
Eric: Yeah. So definitely a great passage of time, because it was a long time. I got an agent almost within the first year of moving out to Los Angeles, and kind of made the decision I’m gonna work random jobs to kind of cobble together rent and try and be a writer as opposed to get like a job that required all my time and not let me write that much. I decided to go for it, but it was right around that time I feel like there was a pretty marked transition in the industry from a spec market for scripts to more IP or adapting things or pitching as opposed to… I feel like, the stories I heard, I was never truly a part of this, but in the ‘80s and ‘90s, someone would write an original spec of lethal weapon or something like that.
And then on Tuesdays their agent would say to all of the studios and all the production companies [inaudible 00:05:27] everyone’s getting it at nine, which would then of course create a competitive market. I think that when I first got out here, I was still, I thought that that was gonna be the path, when it really wasn’t. It’s hard to arrive in a town where, that was changing, especially in my field. So my agent, my first agent didn’t work out so much. I was working a bunch of random jobs. I was pizza delivery guy, I was a temp. I was a driver, like a delivery driver, I call it a messenger. Yeah, I was a messenger, I worked at a movie theater all just to keep my time free to write more. Eventually, I don’t know how some of my work got to my next agent who is my agent now. I think his assistant actually, who I owe a great debt to, had read stuff and put it on his boss’s desk.
And I switched agencies and then through his help, my agent to this day, Doug- shout out Doug. Also a previous relationship I’d had with just some people from hanging out while I was working at Marvel. I auditioned essentially to become part of the Marvel writers program, which it was very early days, initial days at Marvel studios, they had, beyond just the people working on the titles in production or in pre-production, they had a few of us there trying to stockpile material for later. And I ended up, that’s how I ended up getting that job and I was, that was eight years coming. Eight years of kind of struggling before I actually got truly paid to be a writer. So once I was in there, I was working very, very hard. I’d sort do anything.
I wouldn’t have any sort of ego about it. I wasn’t trying to only do features. I wasn’t trying to use it as a springboard to be somewhere else in the industry. And one of the things that they brought up was the idea of Marvel one-shots, which I believe the original pitch for it was like Pixar. Like let’s do short films that can air ahead of our features in theater, the way that Pixar does. And as a trial for it, we did a couple of one-shots that ended up… we picked, it was, our goal I think was to do before the features in theater, but the way we got it done was this extra content on DVDs and Blu-rays.
Ashley: I get you.
Eric: I think it might’ve ultimately been too expensive to get the shorts done, especially because 3D was big then too. So if you were in a 3D audience and then… anyway. That’s all details that don’t matter. That’s how I ended up writing the shorts for Marvel. I was in the program working with Brad Winterbottom, who was one of our producers on Black Widow and on, and my producer on Thor: Ragnarok as well. And we were just, yeah, we’re just making cool stuff.
Ashley: Got you. So let’s dig into your latest film, Black Widow, starring Scarlett Johansson. Maybe to start out, you can just give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is sort of the log line for this film?
Eric: Oh my God, I’ve never had to do that [laughter]. No one has asked me that, that’s so crazy. No one has asked me to pitch it. I think that everyone’s just assumed everyone knows it. Yeah, it’s a middle of her life origin story for Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, a famed Russian spy defector turned shield but is in, turned Avenger, who we’re meeting people from her past that allows and confronts kind of demons from her past, allowing her to move on towards the future.
Ashley: Got you. Got you.
Eric: That’s not very good. I just thought it’s so funny. I haven’t had to pitch it ever.
Ashley: Huh. So that’s… and that sort of leads me to my next question is, I’m curious when you got involved in this project, what exactly did they have story-wise? I noticed on IMDb there’s two other story by credits Ned Benson and Jac Schaefer. Did they already have a draft done, did they come to a treatment? Maybe just walk us through that process. What does this look like when a writer like you lands on a project like this? At what state is that project already in? I mean, obviously there’s already a back story with this character. She’s already appeared in other movies, but what do you have starting, going in with this writing project?
Eric: Sure. I will also, I should say Jac Schaefer, she was the one who ran WandaVision, and she’s a terrific writer. I don’t know if someone, a mispronunciation, I would always wanna be corrected. So I’m sorry if that was rude.
Ashley: No, no problem.
Eric: Yeah, no, so what they had is, when I arrived, they had a lot of kind of broad building blocks. They had, we obviously knew who Natasha Romanoff was through I believe at that point, seven or eight movies which we established a certain kind of version of her character. And because, you know, spoiler alert in Avengers: Endgame, we see her sacrifice herself. We know that she’s going to die. And so it couldn’t, it wasn’t… we knew that the movie wasn’t happening after she’s dead, because then there’s no movie. So I arrived, they had kind of decided that it would take place in this period between captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. And they also had, not so much mandates, but strong suggestion. They had this idea of a family similar to the American, the FX, so like a Russian sleeper unit, family unit in the United States that she was a part of.
We thought that would be an unexpected theme from her past. And we were talking about right from the beginning just kind of getting the gang back together structure for the story. And there was also they really wanted to introduce Taskmaster the villain, into this movie. So, but that was kind of, that was really, those were the big things. And also they really wanted a, there’s a few things from the comic. There’s a cool panel in the comic of her shooting her way out of a window and diving out of this base that’s in the sky and going into a freefall. And that was something they were like, this would be great if we could get there. So it was a few puzzle pieces that they had, but the funny thing is that they didn’t know what the whole puzzle looked like put together, and that’s what I had to figure out.
And there were some things that were just known. Like even I kind of knew it before I talked to them. I was like, if it’s the Black Widow movie having read comics before, I was pretty sure that Yelena Belova was gonna be involved. Like she is a very important kind of a counterpart to Natasha Romanoff in the comics. So I was pretty certain that she was gonna be involved. This version of her, I thought was much kind of cooler than just “Oh, I’m the blonde version of you who’s a little bit more evil.” I felt like this has had a much more of a story resonance a bit more. She had a bit more individuality, I thought their relationship really kind of helped make the whole movie. So yeah, those were some of the things that they had worked out, but it was still, I mean, it was pretty wide open as far as everything else.
Ashley: Got you. Got you. So let’s just talk about sort of the logistics of this. I’m just sort of curious how all this works. So once you got hired on this project, do you start out doing a bunch of treatments and then do you start to do drafts? And I’m just curious again, how many treatments did you do, how many drafts did you do, and who is involved with these different, the different development steps?
Eric: Well, there’s a lot of people involved because when I was brought in, there were people in place already. Cate Shortland, our director had been brought on. Obviously Scarlett Johansson had, it was not only cast, but was a producer on this movie as well. So she, and this is a character that she had been embodying for the better part of 10 years now. So she had a lot of opinions and thoughts on where it was gonna go. Plus Kevin Feige was involved. My producer, Brian Chapek was involved. So when I arrived we all just, it was kind of like a big sit down meeting, I believe Scarlet was finishing up Endgame or finishing up Prestige, so she wouldn’t call in, but she was present, but couldn’t be as present as everybody else. So it was me, Cate, Kevin, Brian. First of all, right away they would fill me in on like, okay, here’s what we’ve done.
Here’s what’s not working. Here’s what we like. Here’s kind of where we wanna go. And I would talk about… so we would talk, we did it like, there was a lot of long days of just talking at first. And then for me, for these big movies it’s very important to have a treatment. Like I don’t think treatments are necessary for all kinds of screenplays, but for big studio movies like this, I just feel like there’s so many moving parts, they’re so complicated. There’s so much that can get out of control. You’d be stupid to not have a blueprint. So I, once we kind of talked about the themes and the characters and stories and what we wanted the relationships to be like, who we wanted to be playing these characters, then I started working more with Brian and Cate throughout the day building…
Not like… it wasn’t my, it certainly wasn’t my longest treatment. I bet it was about 14, 15 pages, but it was pretty detailed with each kind of theme of like the way I do a treatment is, I’ll do the slug line for where we are like. For example, we have a giant Gulag sequence of it. So it would just be exterior Gulag. I wouldn’t be doing an exterior Gulag and I need you for like each little moment of the scene. But I’d just be like, this is our Gulag sequences and basically what happens here. And once we all, once I did that and we went through that a couple of times, and Kevin had read that and Scarlet had read that and everyone had kind of weighed in, that was when I went off. So it was really just, but it was, I think it was because of the nature of that they were a little bit later getting closer towards production when I came in.
So everybody was, I think normally you can have like a couple of drafts of things, but we had, we were just doing with a little bit less time. So everyone was kind of hands-on as we got the treatment to the place we want it to be. And then the draft that I wrote off of that became our production white draft.
Ashley: Got you. I’m curious, throughout this process just developing, you’re dealing with a good number of people. How do you deal with notes that you don’t necessarily agree with when they’re coming down to you? How do you deal with the people giving them, and then ultimately, how do you try and implement them?
Eric: There’s kind of two different ways. There’s like, there’s two, or at least I can think of right now. There’s a million ways to disagree, but the important way is that there’s a logical way, that you can disagree because of logic, and you can disagree because of creative opinion. When it’s something like this, when it’s Thor: Ragnarok or Black Widow, and I disagree creatively, I will make a point of it and make my point heard. But ultimately, I feel like you as a writer have to remember that these are these big kind of [inaudible 00:16:13] things, you don’t own them. Like I didn’t, I never created Natasha Romanoff or Thor or Yelena Belova. These characters existed in many ways beforehand. This is not my passion project about my autobiography or childhood movies that I owned. These movies are bigger collaborations.
So I feel like as long as you make your point once of, “Hey, I think this is blant, man. I think it’d be cool to do it this way.” Sometimes they might just say, a lot of, most of the times they listen to you, but sometimes they’ll just say, “Nope, we wanna do it the other way.” And then it’s just your job to swallow it and say, I’m gonna do the best version of the lesser idea that I can. And I feel like that’s kind of, that’s a pro move right there, because sometimes you’ll find the better version in the version that you thought was worse. As far as logical disagreements, that becomes more, I get more, I put more of a shoulder into that one where I think the best way to deal with it, is sometimes you can just get to a whiteboard and kind of explain like, okay, this person does this and they don’t know this, then they would never do that because they don’t know, the information doesn’t line up.
But sometimes I find it better to just kind of, without any sort of superiority or kind of without it putting anyone down, to just kind of ask the questions of like okay, well, why would they do that? Because of this, well, now you forgot that they don’t remember that this hasn’t happened yet. And then if people, normally people would be like, “Oh yeah shit. All right, we put ourselves into a loop here and we’ve got to correct it.” Because I feel like one of the major jobs of the writer, especially the writer in the movie and production is to your continuity for the story continuity for the logic, you wanna make sure that nothing contradicts itself.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. I’m curious too…
Eric: So it’s really important to raise your hand and make that apparent.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. Good advice. I’m curious to, I heard a quote from Scarlett Johansson, something to the effect of her character in this film was not as sexualized as some of the other Black Widow characters. And I’m just curious, how conscious are you of sort of the collective mood of the country with these sorts of social issues? And I’m not looking to say anything controversial here, I’m just sort of, what do screenwriters kind of have to know about sort of the collective mood of the country when they’re dealing with other people in meetings and that sort of stuff?
Eric: You know, I try not to, I don’t really think about it honestly. Especially with this one, because this is, as someone who has read Black Widow comics and also someone who has worked on an offer Marvel studios for 10 years now, I’m very familiar with Natasha Romanoff and how I see her as the coolest. I think she’s a cool character and there’s my personal version where I think this is the coolest version of her. So I’m trying to write the coolest in the time. I’m not trying to write a specifically female superhero or a specifically sexy or unsexy superhero. I’m trying to think of it from Natasha’s character logic and kind of personal, emotional conflict and resolution. That’s kind of how I try to approach it. And sometimes, I don’t know. Sometimes it’s good to tread that line.
There is a line in this movie that I fought for, that I then almost regretted at the premiere, which is David Harbour’s character. The guardian, after he’s broken out of prison, says, “Is it your time of the month?” Which is a misogynistic and outdated joke, but he’s a misogynistic and outdated character. And I got, when I wrote that in, it was just revolt around, how could you care? I was like, no, it’s his character, and the thing is setting up Yelena and Natasha to kind of tear him down and make him uncomfortable with this. Like they turned, the whole point is for them to turn their back on him. But man, I will tell you at the premiere, when he said that line, I heard surround sound groaned. And I was like, oh no, we can’t come back. I was very worried that I had made a mistake.
Thank God for, you know, the groans died down enough to be able to hear Florence really kind of give it back to him with the whole, that’s what they do with the forced hysterectomy, and make him uncomfortable. But yeah, there was a moment there where I was worried that I was totally out of touch and had screwed up.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. So that’s an interesting story. I’d like to just wrap up the interviews asking the guests, if there’s anything that they’ve seen recently that they thought was really great, that maybe was a little under the radar that would be good for screenwriters to check out. Is there anything you’ve seen recently you really liked? HBO, Netflix, Hulu, any of these services? Maybe there’s something that was a little under the radar.
Eric: Let’s see. I mean, I don’t know if it’s under the radar because it did get some nominations, but The Great. It came out last year, The Great, starring Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult. I’m ashamed to not know those names, the writer who did the movie, the Faith [inaudible 00:21:09]. It’s a period piece, which is not normally my kind of thing, but I just, I found the writing to be incredible. I found the choices to be incredible. I was constantly surprised by the entirely character motivated moves, but like, I just didn’t see it coming and I’m pretty good at seeing stuff coming. So I yeah, I would highly recommend The Great to anybody 16, 17 or older.
Ashley: Perfect. Perfect. Yeah, that’s a great recommendation. I usually ask the guest as we’re ending, where their film is playing. I think Black Widow is playing pretty much everywhere. Is it on Disney+ now as well?
Eric: It is on Disney+ and it is playing in the theaters. I personally love seeing in theaters, but however you want.
Ashley: Perfect, perfect. And 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.
Eric: Oh, I mean, I’m on Instagram as, my Instagram is ShimmyBluejeans, but it’s really just a kind of silly thing. I don’t do too much work stuff on there. It’s kind of the Instagram of the toy [inaudible 00:22:13]. So yeah, if anybody wants to check that out, that’s fine. But if not also, it’s a lot of pictures of me and my friends.
Ashley: Perfect. Perfect. So, well Eric, I really appreciate you coming on and talking with me today. Good luck with this film and all your future projects as well.
Eric: Awesome. Thanks so much, man. Nice talking to you.
Ashley: Thank you. We’ll talk to you later.
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This is a monthly newsletter that goes out to our list of over 400 producers who are actively looking for material, so again, this 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 podcast, I’m gonna be interviewing screenwriter and fellow podcaster, Geoffrey D. Calhoun. He runs the successful screenwriter podcast, which you can find anywhere podcasts are available, and he’s also a screenwriter. We talk very specifically about how he’s been able to get gigs and get projects produced, which is a lot of networking, but he goes into great detail about it.
Really explains how he’s been able to get a lot of the gigs that he’s gotten over the years. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s our show, thank you for listening.