Our deeply felt thanks to Bob DeRosa, who has the story credit and is co-writer on Killers, for these thoughts about screenwriting, Blake Snyder and the Save the Cat! principles, and the business of Hollywood:
Back in Summer 2006, I had a couple of lackluster studio assignments under my belt, and a first feature (the indie crime-drama The Air I Breathe) deep in post-production. It’d been a while since I wrote a new spec and I had this idea I couldn’t shake: a retired hitman, now happily married to a woman who doesn’t know what he used to do, discovers that five killers have been contracted to kill him. To make matters worse, they’ve had three years to infiltrate his life, meaning it could be his neighbor, his mailman, even his best friend at work. Not only does he have to figure out who’s trying to kill him, but also keep his marriage together at the same time.
I wrote the first draft and titled it “Hell and Back”, after a snippet of dialogue from the last page. I turned it into my manager Christopher Pratt at Elements Entertainment and waited for his response. He called me back with the old “like it, don’t love it” and, in addition to his notes, gave me a copy of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Which changed my life.
After devouring Blake’s book, I realized my script had all the correct elements from his beat sheet, except they were in the wrong order. But what gave me confidence was that on page 25 of my script, my hero BREAKS the neck of the first killer in front of his wife, an act of no-return that is a literal BREAK Into Two. I quickly re-boarded my script in the order of Blake’s beat sheet, wrote a second draft, and turned it into my manager. He called me the morning after my birthday and said, “You knocked it out of the park, buddy.” With tears in my eyes, I realized he hadn’t said those words in years.
I quickly retitled the script “Five Killers,” which at first seemed too simple for me, but then again, that’s Blake’s whole point: to fight our desire to complicate things and just give ‘em a well-structured story that pays off the promise of the premise with a title that tells you what it’s about. And my story was about a dude with a pretty serious problem… and that problem was five killers.
To make a long story short, Christopher and I were hell-bent on not just selling the script, but making the movie. Christopher was working with my agency to package the script when Lionsgate asked to read it. Christopher said no. They found a copy and read it anyway. They wanted to buy it. Christopher said no. They made a good offer. Christopher said no. They made an even better offer. And we finally said yes.
Luckily, Lionsgate wanted to make the movie as much as we did. What followed was two years of development, as my little contained action movie became a $75 million action/comedy starring Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl. During the process, Lionsgate brought in some big studio writers to rewrite my script. This was my first time being rewritten and wow, that’s no fun. But what gives me a great deal of pride is that the core story never changed.
The way the story was executed and ultimately marketed may have changed, but the premise has always been there, all the way through the final cut. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the finished product is a perfectly executed 15-point Blake Snyder beat sheet come to life. My Dude With a Problem movie has become a Buddy Love movie. My Break Into Two is now the Midpoint. Are these changes for the best? Who knows! Feel free to discuss it here on Blake’s site and maybe I’ll jump in, too. Perhaps Blake would’ve approved of at least one of their changes, when Lionsgate simplified the title even further, calling the movie Killers.
I was fortunate enough to get know Blake a bit before he passed last year. I took his beat-sheet workshop and saw him speak multiple times at the Screenwriting Expo. Blake was aware of how his books were an integral part of my success. In Blake’s last email to me, he asked me to participate in a daylong workshop he was organizing. It breaks my heart that I’ll never get to sit with Blake on a panel and talk about how he changed my life.
Instead, I’ll do what I always do: I’ll passionately recommend his books. I’ll give advice to new writers and always give Blake credit when it’ his wisdom I’m passing on. And most importantly, I’ll do my best to keep writing cool stories that deliver on the promise of their premise. I owe Blake that, to say the least.