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.
Thank you so much, Bob, for such a forthright and fascinating blog post! I love that you give everyone the “eye” into the life of the scribe/filmmaker. Sooo much to learn!
- Bradford Richardson
Bob THANKS! I’m thrilled for you. KILLERS is on my hit list! I give Blake credit too, whenever I steal, (I mean, offer), one of his SAVE THE CAT ideas.
- Rob McCallum
TO be honest, i was going to pass this flick over as it seemed a little bit too much like Mr. and Mrs Smith. But since Blake was a huge help, be it indirectly, or directly, I’m going to check it out.
and now that I hear there are 5 killers it sounds a little like the upcoming Scott Pilgram flick in which he has to battle 7 ex-boyfriends. Either way, looking forward to this.
Rock on Cat Nation!
- Al Rodriguez
Congratulations, Bob! This was a rare, insightful window into the process of writing, rewriting and being rewritten. Wish you and KILLERS much success!
- Bruno Ferrari
On the verge of getting his work brought to the silver screen, a successful screenwriter decides to reveal his long-time secret about his writing only to find himself thrown into a storm of praise and congratulations from a hidden community of cats.
- Laurence MacNaughton, Author
What a fantastic story! Now I HAVE to run out and see this movie.
That BS2 is possibly one of the most useful tools a writer can have. In slightly modified form, it can work for any story (I use it for writing novels). I bet, if we tried hard enough, we could figure out where the beats are in your success story about writing Killers! But that would be going too far . . .
- Bob DeRosa
Thanks for the kind words, everyone! And Rob, I hear you. I worked very hard to make my original script different from Mr. and Mrs. Smith. After I left the project, I feel that everyone wanted it to be MORE like it. So we’ll see if that pays off. But one thing they did do was change the number of killers, so the “five” had to go. How many are there now? I’m not tellin’!
I haven’t seen the movie yet but the ‘fun and games’ of the trailer certainly look like you’ve paid off on the promise of the premise and it looks really funny – I think Kathryn Heigl is great casting – she’s so funny with the gun and talking about the worst thing that they do all day – congrats Bob! Have you gone to the BS2 workshop? It’s run by Jose and I think he knows the beats almost better than Blake – I learned so much from him and look forward to the next board class!
RIP Blake – thank you for everything!
- Jackie Brown
Thanks and congratulations, Bob. I’m looking forward to seeing Killers.
The BS2 should be placed in The Smithsonian.
I miss you Blake.
- Melody Lopez
Bob DeRosa, Go on with your bad self! I’m so proud for you. And so touched to hear the Blake connection. Core of the story is all yours! No one can take that from you! MEOW!!!!
- Rob McCallum
Glad to hear you were fighting for your voice Bob. Good for you and thanks again for the insight!
- Kieran Kramer
Dear Mr. DeRosa,
I am SO excited to know that Blake influenced the writing of your script that went on to become a big movie! When I see it this weekend, I’m going to enjoy it that much more. You sound like a terrific guy–I hope you enjoy your success. Blake also helped me sell. Until him, I was rowing and getting nowhere, but after SAVE THE CAT, I got a 4-book contract to St. Martin’s Press.
- Andy Noble
Dear Mr DeRosa
How very interesting the way Killers evolved. I can empathise with how you felt when others edited your script, but from what you say, the resultant proved to be worth it.
I am perhaps months, if not a year or 2 away from submitting a viable script (it’s not too bad – certainly original), but always feel gutted on receipt of my Analysts feedback.
Your resolve to take the ‘interference’ on the chin is comforting and provides me with renewed vigour to continue with my script to the bitter end.
- Mike Rinaldi
Bob, if you’re happy enough with how the movie turned out, you’re in a very exclusive club of writers. Thanks for sharing your story with us!
Dude I have to be honest. I had no intention of seeing Killers until I read your testimony. This Blake Synder formula is no joke. Wow.
- Cynthia McClendon
Awesome story! Gives me hope! Continued success to you!
- Rob McCallum
saw Killers. Liked it a lot. Way better than Mr. and Mrs. Smith in a lot of ways. Really think the mid point should have been the break into act two as you originally had it. Guessing who the killers were going to be is half the fun and lets the audience participate.
Film just felt short. Would love to have seen the original draft.
Can’t wait for your next flick.
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Thanks Bob! I’m excited about seeing KILLERS this weekend! Woohoo! I owe so much to Blake, too! Hugs