“There are hundreds and thousands of people here in LA, who are just nice people trying to make movies because that’s what they grew up loving.”
The Tracking Board is proud to present the Mini Series, our series highlighting our candid interviews with working writers and filmmakers. In this series, we meet with passionate individuals who discuss their writing process and the insight that they’ve gained by working in the industry.
TB contributing writer Miley Tunnecliffe sat down with John D’Arco, a Los Angeles based screenwriter whose script Barely Lethal placed on the 2011 Hit List. Now a feature film starring Hailee Steinfeld, Samuel L Jackson, and Jessica Alba, the film has just been released in cinemas and across all Video On Demand platforms. John took some time out to chat to us about his journey from film crew to writer, how branding works for you, his experience dealing with “heat,” and the long-term benefits of a general meeting.
——————⇒ How did you find your way to writing?
In high school I realized I couldn’t throw a football that well, but I could turn a phrase. So I naturally gravitated to writing. I’ve always had this deep love of film, but the more practical side of me won out. I was a business major in college. I did take some film classes and make a few shorts, but I wasn’t ready at that point to go all in as a filmmaker.
I worked in the public relations industry for a couple years, writing press releases and corporate speeches. Inevitably I would try to pepper them with a bit of humor. My boss would often remind me that the quarterly update for stockholders was not the appropriate place to try jokes. I realized after awhile that this wasn’t going to satisfy me, so applied for film school.
I went to Florida State University and I got a fantastic film education there. Not only were we learning the craft of writing, directing, and editing, but we had to crew for each other so we were learning other practical aspects of filmmaking too. I was exposed to a lot of skill sets that I didn’t even know existed.
When I came out to Los Angeles 10 years ago, I wasn’t interested in doing the 9-5 again. I was lucky enough to meet up with some alum who hired me to grip their films. I thought working as crew would keep me on set, close to what I’m trying to do. The goal was always to be a writer but because I had this particular skill set I was able to use that to pay the bills until I could actually call myself a writer.
——————⇒ Barely Lethal is your first produced feature, how many scripts had you written prior?
JD: It’s actually the first script I’d ever written. I just dove into it without any sort of planning. I wrote many drafts and they sucked. That was ten years ago. Now, I’m very passionate about outlining, sequencing and knowing everything before I begin.
That script eventually went into a draw. I completed two other scripts, with each one I noticed my writing was getting better. But I felt the conceit for Barely Lethal was still viable so I re-attacked it. I was able to get a manager who helped me develop it and get it to market. It was actually a long process, but it sounds better when I say it was the first script I ever wrote. (Laughter)
——————⇒ So this was the script you learned to write on?
There is a big difference between a good idea and a good script.
JD: Yes, through embarrassing trial and error. It taught me that there is a big difference between a good idea and a good script. You need to take the time to plan and map it out. I was driving blindly for so long. There were many drafts and versions I was doing on my own. There’s definitely a fatigue that sets in, so it was time to move on.
I read all the screenwriting books. I was a huge Save the Cat/ Blake Snyder fan. I took his word as gospel for the second feature. That helped me realize how important structure is and that opening Final Draft is the absolute last step.
——————⇒ How long would you say you spend outlining and structuring before you get into the draft?
JD: Forever. Probably too long! It takes me a few months. I’ll get excited about an idea but I spend a lot of time vetting it. If I can’t get that outline down or if something’s not working, I’m not going to pull the trigger and write the draft. Sometimes I’ll realize—oh wait. They already made this movie. So then I’ll have to try to find a different angle or let it go.
——————⇒ After putting that much time and energy into that, it must be a hard decision to make.
JD: Sometimes it’s made very easy. A couple times I’ve discovered a similar movie was going into production. That kills it straight away. A situation like that definitely stings, but on the flip-side, you’ve got to tell yourself—your instincts were right, this is a commercial idea. That’s the silver lining for me because I want make commercial films. I don’t think I’ll ever win an Oscar, but maybe I’ll make money at the box office for a studio. So if I have to quit a project because someone else is doing it, then I like to think, at least I have my finger on the pulse.
——————⇒ Barely Lethal was on The Tracking Board’s 2011 Hit List, was that a big break for you?
It was a tremendous break. But it actually was my second big break. My first one was getting a manager. I had a friend who worked in development and really liked a script I had just finished. I was fortunate enough she passed it on to some managers for me. A big favour, because that’s putting her reputation on the line. That’s how I met my manager, Sukee Chew.
Sukee asked what else I had and I pitched her Barely Lethal. She helped me develop it and sent it out as a spec which generated all sorts of buzz, including The Hit List.
Hollywood is kind of like the mafia where you need someone to vouch for you. So I had Sukee saying—you gotta read this! But everyone knows I’m her client and she has a vested interest. Now getting on The Hit List—that was street cred and confirmation from people who didn’t have any stake in the game that this is a really good script.
To have that affirmation definitely helped. The phone calls and meetings started to multiply after that. It was such a treat that people who stood to gain nothing pointed out my script as one of the good ones from that year.
——————⇒ What did you learn from the experience of taking all those meetings?
JD: It’s a whirlwind for sure. I got set up on just dozens of dozens of meetings. There were two types I went on. One where the production company was legitimately interested in the script and it was in their wheel-house. With those you were pre-screened so you would go in and they would say—we love your voice, we know you can handle this sort of teen comedy. We’ve got these ideas. Do you respond to any? That’s super exciting because after trying to generate ideas on your own for so long, they’re suddenly asking you to look at their seed-bank to see if there’s anything you like.
Getting on The Hit List—that was street cred and confirmation from people who didn’t have any stake in the game that this is a really good script.
The other type of meeting, I’d go in and they’d say—there is no way in hell we’re making a teenage comedy. We make genre, low-budget horror. But writing is writing so we wanted to meet you. I think these meetings tend to get a bad wrap because it’s essentially a meet and greet. But it’s actually these I found more beneficial in the long run. The few writing assignments and pitches I’ve been called for have been through people, who a year or two later had moved on to a different company, but because we’d hit it off in the room, they remembered me.
You can’t roll your eyes at generals. You’ve got to think long term.
——————⇒ How would you prepare for going into those types of meetings?
JD: Sit in the parking garage and listen to the Rocky theme. (Laughter)
I’d do a little research on the company. Know the films they’ve made. Go in with ideas and loglines for those ideas. Make sure it’s something that particular company would be interested in. The question that will always come up is—what are you working on now? All you may have is a logline, but making sure you have a good an answer to that question is important.
I aim to be as professional, as polite, and courteous as possible. It’s a business of relationships, ultimately. The myth of the Hollywood capitol “A” asshole exists but that’s not the majority. There are hundreds and thousands of people here in LA, who are just nice people trying to make movies because that’s what they grew up loving.
——————⇒ It’s interesting that you were being called in for meetings with companies outside of your branding because as they said, writing is writing. How do you feel as a writer about idea of being branded?
It’s a double-edged sword. If you have a successful teen comedy and then suddenly Universal says they want you because of that, boy, what a wonderful way to be labelled.
The other is, people love a good story. When I first got an agent, they knew that I had been working on set as a grip. When they made a call for me they would say—we’ve got this guy, he’s a big, burly grip who lifts sandbags and he’s writing a high school movie about three teenage girls! You gotta meet him. They crafted this marketing strategy to create interest and get me out there.
I think when you’re riding a wave it’s foolish to get off. If you’re going to be a professional writer that means making money and booking jobs. Quite frankly, the path of least resistance is to do what you’ve done before, because it’s a snowball. If you’ve done one then you might get a second. If you’ve done two, you can bet you’re going to get a third. One writing assignment I got was a girl in high school who had special powers and kicked butt. They knew I could do that because they’d just read a script I wrote about a girl in high school who kicked butt!
But I think that content trumps everything. No one is ever going to thumb their nose at a great script. I’ve had the urge to go out of brand and I have done it. My daughter is three and half and she’s started to watch television. So I’m sitting there and I’m watching My Little Pony and all these other kids shows and I’m thinking—this is really fun stuff! I’d like to do something I could watch with my kids! So I wrote an animated pilot and my manager at first was like—what the f**k is this? (Laughter)
If you want to be taken seriously you should study the genre you’re getting in to.
But we got it to the right people, it was well received, and has led to some fantastic opportunities. So I think the writer always has to follow their desire, but humility is needed too. Just because you want to write the next great drama doesn’t mean you’re suited to actually do it. To think that I could just jump in and write the next American Sniper is foolish.
I feel like I know the DNA of commercial romantic comedies now because I studied them my whole life. When I wrote the cartoon I had to spend time reverse engineering how a cartoon works. If you want to be taken seriously you should study the genre you’re getting in to.
Sometimes though, there are stories you just need to write to get them out of your system. But no one ever needs to see them. That’s just part of writing. You’re not always writing for an audience, sometimes you’re just trying to express yourself.
——————⇒ So how does a big, burly grip get inside the mind of a high school girl?
Well I’m not that burly! Oh gosh, I don’t know. I guess I’ve always been the guy who’s not afraid to admit he likes teeny-bopper material. I try not to be too cool, you know? I may or may not have memorised the ‘N Sync dance sequence in high school… you can’t deny how catchy that song is! (Laughter)
I love these movies, unabashedly. I grew up with John Hughes. I remember watching Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. My neighbor’s older sister had VHS’ of those. The 80’s were just the heyday with films like Better of Dead and Hiding Out , which is an amazing one too—1987, Jon Cryer—it’s the perfect representation of a fish-out-of-water story. I referenced that for the structure of Barely Lethal.
Then in the 90s there was Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You. I’ve seen Bring It On more times then I care to admit.
I feel like these teen movies come around every 5 years. I don’t understand why that is because I think there’s always a market for it.
——————⇒ You’re credited as the writer and director of the short film The Grocery Story. Is directing something you’re interested in?
JD: That short was one of many I made at Florida State and it made the festival rounds. When I watch it now, I cringe because I see the mistakes, but I’m proud of it.
I went to school with some really talented people. One guy in particular, on the same budget and timeframe, you watch his movie and you’re like—wow. This guy is thinking on a different level. Whereas mine just looked like a conventional romantic comedy in 10 minutes. I had to be honest with myself about my strengths. I knew I was going to have to write my way into the industry. So I shelved that ambition.
I think the more successful I am as a writer the more I will be able to float my name out there in a directing capacity. But at the moment, even now with Barely Lethal coming out, directing is still a while away.
——————⇒ So if you never get the opportunity to direct, but you have a highly successful writing career, would that satisfy you?
JD: Absolutely. You would hope that anyone coming to LA to try and work in the movie industry would know the odds of making it. So you’re a fool if you’re not appreciative of any success.
My movie just opened last week. I was at the premiere and it’s such a crazy dream come true. At this point, I would be fine if my career ended tomorrow!
Look out for part two on Monday where John talks in depth about the process of making Barely Lethal.
Contributor Miley Tunnecliffe is -based actress and screenwriter, known for the short films “Love in a Disabled Toilet,” “Bye Bye Lulu,” and “Barnesy’s Numbers.” Her comedic road-trip script, “Run Santos Run,” recently placed in the top 5% of 7500 unproduced screenplays entered in 2014’s Academy Nicholl Fellowships. She is also a co-head of Red Milestone Productions, which is based in Western Australia.
Follow Miley on Twitter: @mileytunn