The Insiders – A Save the Cat! Exclusive Series
Today, we are proud to launch our series of industry-based interviews, THE INSIDERS. Every few weeks, we’ll sit down and chat with men and women making their mark in Hollywood – and around the world.
This week’s guest is writer/director/producer Jim Hemphill.
STC: You’ve had a remarkable path, going from critic to reader to writer/director, and even producer. When did your interest in film begin, and what led you down the road of the scribe?
JH: My first memories are literally of movies. When I was three years old I had my first moviegoing experiences, which were very different but equally formative: my parents took me along when they saw Ken Russell’s Tommy, and not long afterward my mom took me to a re-release of Disney’s Snow White. I loved both pictures, though they both scared the hell out of me in different ways – I suppose the excitement was my first step on the road toward making a horror movie. Within a few years I was really hooked on going to the movies, and as a kid I loved everything – I was just as happy going to see an adult drama like Kramer vs. Kramer or Absence of Malice as I was going to see a James Bond or Star Wars movie or watching a Hitchcock movie at home on TV. Though I must say, I had a special spot in my heart for anything with Burt Reynolds or Clint Eastwood, and I still do.
It was Eastwood who got me thinking that I wanted to actually make movies; this would have been when I was around 10 years old or so. I realized that the Eastwood movies I liked the best – The Gauntlet, Bronco Billy, The Outlaw Josey Wales – tended to be the ones he directed as well as starred in. That was when I first became conscious of the fact that someone was guiding everything behind the camera. Pretty quickly I discovered a directorial signature behind some of my other favorite films, and realized that I tended to like pretty much anything that had Walter Hill, John Carpenter, or Brian De Palma’s name on it. As far as screenwriting in particular, when I was in high school I discovered guys like Ron Shelton, Paul Mazursky, and James L. Brooks, all of whom I felt were writing character-driven scripts that were as rich as great novels. There are dozens of other writers and directors I could mention, but the point is that I was getting a sense of what constituted a strong filmmaking voice, and falling more and more in love with film.
I started writing my own scripts in college, and like most early screenplays they weren’t all that good, but I was learning the structure. I had kind of a split personality in film school, in that I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I also had early luck getting a lot of my critical writing published in places like American Cinematographer, the Chicago Reader, and Film Quarterly, so I pursued work in journalism while also aspiring to make my own films. I guess all those hours spent in dark theatres gave me a pretty good sense of what I thought worked and what didn’t in movies, and I became pretty good at articulating it. While I was at USC I got an internship at Paramount and was trained as a script reader, and that was how I made my living when I got out of film school. For many years, I covered scripts and books for everyone from studios like Universal and directors like David Fincher, to production companies like Harpo and TV networks like Fox.
All this time I was writing scripts and had a few close calls, but nothing ever got made. I had a kind of Joel Silver-esque action movie that was optioned by a now-defunct production company based at Turner, but it got destroyed in the development process, and now, the ubiquity of cell phones has made it kind of obsolete. I also made a few bucks writing the kinds of erotic films that play on Showtime and Cinemax late at night, and that was probably my favorite job ever – writing sex and dialogue for money, what’s better than that? In fact, in a roundabout way those erotic films are what led to me doing Bad Reputation, which was a real labor of love and the first movie I directed.
STC: You wrote and directed BAD REPUTATION. Did you find that a more liberating experience than simply writing the script? How did you get the script to market?
JH: It was liberating in the sense that it was the first time I felt like I was making something that was really mine, though of course the downside of that is I’m the one responsible for all the flaws. If you write something for someone else to direct and it turns out badly, you can always pass the buck. The movie came about in a very roundabout way. About a year earlier I had helped a friend shoot some extra features for a DVD of one of his movies, and I met this cinematographer on the shoot. A year goes by, and I run into this same cinematographer in a bar. He asks me what I’m up to, and I tell him I’ve been writing this softcore cable stuff, but that I’m really looking to direct something myself. I turns out that this cameraman had worked with a guy at a company that made ultra-low budget movies for cable and DVD, and that it was a company that would give a young director a chance to make a film, provided he was willing to work for free. At that point, I probably would have paid them to let me direct.
I met with the guy who ran this company, expecting that maybe I’d be directing some erotic thriller or something, since that’s what I had gotten made as a writer. But then the guy started asking me who some of my idols were, and who I really wanted to emulate, and John Sayles’s name came up. I said I loved Sayles because he could make movies like Lianna and Matewan that dealt with serious social or historical issues, but he could also write fast and funny horror films like Pirahna and Alligator. The exec zeroed in on my passion for horror, and asked if I had any ideas for a slasher movie. At that point Bad Reputation was just an embryonic idea in my head – the notion was to do I Spit On Your Grave set in high school, and use that premise as a springboard for some social satire about sexual double standards – but I pitched what I had and the guy liked it, and then we were up and running. Now, a series of events led to me not actually making the movie with that guy, but the ball got rolling and I wrote the script in three weeks and it barely changed.
STC: What are your thoughts on writing horror? Why does it never seem to go out of style?
I might argue with the notion that it never goes out of style. Certainly the late 1980’s and even much of the 1990’s were lonely years for horror fans. But it does always come back even when it goes away, and right now it seems to be as strong as ever. My own theory is that horror is popular because, at its best, it offers a safe haven for people to exorcise their own deepest fears. Movies like Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining and the original Friday the 13th all address basic worries: a mother’s worry her child won’t be born “normal,” a wife’s fear that she doesn’t know her husband and a husband’s fear that he has grown to hate his family, and a teenager’s worry that sex is somehow dirty and they’re going to be punished for it. These are things we think about, maybe only at a subconscious level, and I truly believe that horror movies are healthy because they allow us to deal with these anxieties and let them out in a harmless environment. And some of them can do this in a spectacularly entertaining way – Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, for example, which I think is the best horror movie of the last 10 years, is hilarious and exhilarating as well as frightening and thoughtful.
STC: Do you believe that the new technologies today offer writers more avenues, and more empowerment?
JH: Absolutely. I’m a bit old-fashioned in that I don’t watch movies on the Internet – I still prefer to see things on the big screen rather than on my computer or television – but I’m obviously in the minority. The marketing and distribution capabilities of the Internet are a godsend to any independent filmmaker; we got the word out about Bad Reputation purely through web reviews, Myspace, and places like that, and even though the movie got a good DVD release, I’m sure more people have watched it on Hulu or on demand than in any other format. From a production standpoint, new technology takes excuses away from writers. It’s always hard to make a movie, but it is SO much easier to do it today than it was 10 years ago. You really can make a movie digitally and edit it on your computer (I cut Bad Reputation in my kitchen), and if it’s good you’ll get it into festivals and hopefully establish yourself.
STC: With spec sales at such a low, what can a new writer do to help launch his/her own career?
JH: Well, this relates to the previous question a little. Take advantage of the new digital technologies and, as Lloyd Kaufman would say, Make Your Own Damn Movie. When Bad Reputation fell through at the company I wrote it for, we did it on our own on DV. Now, it wasn’t easy – the experience was incredibly stressful, in fact – but at the end of the day, I had a movie that I wrote and directed that showed at festivals and was distributed all over the world. It’s still tough to crack the upper echelons of the studio world, but having made something that was released and written about does allow me to push the door open a little wider.
STC: Why do so few scripts make it to Recommend? What are the Top Ten Things that send the script to Pass – and what are the Top Three Things that send it to Recommend?
JH: The reason it’s so hard to get a Recommend is simply that as soon as a studio or production company says yes to making a movie, they’re saying yes to spending millions of dollars and years of labor. So something needs to stand out in a script for it to get a Recommend – yet, the irony is that, sadly, if you’re too original you probably won’t get a Recommend either, because studios are risk averse, and if they get something they can’t compare to something else they’ve seen, they aren’t going to make it. Can you imagine the reader’s reports on Mulholland Drive, for example, or Cronenberg’s Crash? Great movies, but I bet they got a lot of passes. I always tried to champion more original and innovative work when I was a reader, and often I would get chastised by my bosses for it.
Script reading is highly subjective, and because of that, there’s no formula you can follow that will get your script recommended. You could write a romantic comedy about a successful career woman who can’t find love, and if that script winds up on the desk of a female executive whose love life is in shambles you might get it made. That same exact script could be read by a married man who doesn’t relate to it at all, and he’ll pass. Depressing, but that’s just a fact. That said, I think there are some things that improve or hurt your odds. The first, and I can’t believe I even have to say this, but I do, is make sure your script has no typos or spelling errors. You wouldn’t believe how many scripts I read over the years that would get a C from a seventh grade English teacher. As a reader, I automatically become biased against a script when there are multiple errors; I figure, if somebody didn’t take their work more seriously, why should I?
Also, avoid fat in your descriptions. If you want to use aureate language in your writing, write novels or poems, not screenplays. Just describe what the reader needs to see in straightforward language, so that they can let the script fly by just as if they were watching the movie. Ironically, the best models I can think of for this kind of writing are two novelists, Jim Thompson and Elmore Leonard. Andrew Vachss is good too; all these guys write terse, spare descriptions that actually make the imagery more vivid, not less.
The fact is, the two things a script really needs to get a Recommend are two things that can’t be taught: a great idea and a distinctive point of view. The only way you can acquire these is to read as much as you can, watch as many movies as you can, and get out and meet as many people as you can – the more life you observe and the more art you consume, the more you’ll have the tools you need to write a great script. And write what you love – unless you’re very brilliant or very lucky, you can’t write something for purely calculated, commercial reasons and have it turn out well. The worst scripts I’ve written have been the ones I wrote trying to second-guess what would sell.
STC: If you had one single piece of advice to give to a new writer, what would that be?
JH: Watch movies made before Star Wars. I am continually appalled when I meet young writers (or even not so young writers) who have no sense of film history. There have been a lot of great movies made in the last 30 years, but if you really want to learn how to tell stories you have to go back and study the masters: Preston Sturges, Leigh Brackett, Budd Boetticher, John Huston, Sam Peckinpah, Samson Raphaelson, Jean Renoir, Dudley Nichols, and many others. I actually meet people who want to be in the film industry who say they don’t watch black-and-white movies, if you can believe that. These people are very nice, but they’re ignorant and they’re limiting their talent if they don’t expose themselves to Rules of the Game, The Lady Eve, In a Lonely Place, Casablanca, Trouble in Paradise…you get my point. If you want to write a commercial romantic comedy, you can learn more from studying the Criterion DVDs of Trouble in Paradise and Heaven Can Wait than you can from watching every Julia Roberts movie ever made.
STC: What is your favorite word?