“You have to believe in yourself and give it ten years. Genuinely stick to that. That’s how long it takes to build both your professional network and your skill.”
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. In part two, John takes us through the process of getting Barely Lethal from script to screen, writing lessons he learned, and advice he wished he knew when he was younger.
——————⇒ Talk us through what happened after Barely Lethal got on The Hit List. What were the steps that led you to production?
My manager, Sukee, picked about 40 production companies she had relationships with and sent them the script. Most of them had deals with studios, so it’s about generating this sudden buzz so someone will raise their hand and say—I love this. I’ve got a first-look deal with Sony or Warner. I’m going to take it to them. You only get about 5-6 chances at that level, that’s how many major studios there are.
Of those approximately 40 companies, some read it and weren’t interested; some said they would love to take it to their studio; some said they weren’t going to take it to a studio, but they got a laugh out of the script and wanted to meet me.
Ultimately the studios passed for various reasons. A lot of them were concerned about who was going to open the film. Frankly, that was a good question. This was June of 2010. At the time there wasn’t any teenage girl with that much star power.
This was pre-Hunger Games and Divergent so the idea of this teenage kick-ass heroine hadn’t generated billions of dollars yet. One studio said—we love this and we’ll take it if John is willing to change it to a teenage boy—but that wasn’t even a conversation. We laughed about it and moved on. It’s funny, if we had done it two years later, it might have had a different fate.
Having my first project go out to the town, planting my flag as a writer, and taking all those meetings—in terms of building a career, that was the goal.
For me, even though the studios said no, it wasn’t that terrible. Having my first project go out to the town, planting my flag as a writer, and taking all those meetings—in terms of building a career, that was the goal. Anything else felt like a bonus.
One of the companies I meet with very early was RKO and the head of their production was Vanessa Coifman. They loved it and wanted to make it, but as an independent company they couldn’t compete with studios. Vanessa told us if no one takes it, to come on back. She was true to her word.
It was RKO who ended up optioning it. Sukee and RKO have produced films together before, so she came on as a producer too. So Sukee and Vanessa started developing it, which for us then meant getting a director attached.
——————⇒ Were there re-writes at that stage?
No. I didn’t do any until our director came on board. I think that’s pretty common because you know the director is going to make changes so it can be a waste of money to try and pre-empt that.
They were starting to interview directors and it had fallen in the hands of Kyle Newman. He came in with a fantastic vision. I wasn’t really involved in this part because I’m not a producer. It was Sukee and Vanessa who hired him, but it was clear he totally got it. For me it was just a huge sigh of relief, because I then got to work with a guy who understood the movie we were making. We were on the same page right away. It was a great match.
That’s when re-writes started because the next stage is to get financing. To get financing, we needed a cast. To get the cast, we needed the script to be as tight as possible.
Filmmaking is such a collaborative process and that counts for writing too. Yes, it can be a solitary pursuit and it’s easy to be precious, but I think it’s foolish not to be open to the fact that someone can see your vision and push it further.
Hailee Steinfeld was the first to come on board. She’s the star. After Hailee came Samuel L Jackson. But this all took quite awhile. I have an email from my wife when we started to realize how long the time-frame of Hollywood development can be. We’d just watched True Grit and she said—I know that girl (Hailee) is way too young, but I bet by the time this thing gets made, she’ll be seventeen and perfect. That was about 2010 and later on by some crazy, cosmic coincidence we got it to Hailee. My wife was right, as she usually is—and Hailee was perfect.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, Brett Ratner came on board as a producer and that gave us juice. Brett is the king of action comedy. He knows how to make money with that genre. It was still an independent movie, but now you’ve got this 400 pound gorilla on your side. People were suddenly a little more willing to say yes to us, rather than that default “no” you seem to get a lot. I think we got Samuel L. Jackson because of Brett.
Getting Sam was huge because he is as big a movie star as you can get. On the business side, as far as foreign sales go, if Sam is in your movie, you will sell it. He brings with him guaranteed box office. Then you add in Jessica Alba, another huge, instant name recognition. Those three are what finally got our financing secured.
It’s funny, with the cast and the look of the film, it really looks like a studio movie, but we made it independently on a very tight budget.
——————⇒ When did you go into production? Did you get to go on set?
You have to believe in yourself and give it ten years. Genuinely stick to that.
JD: It was late fall of 2013. A year and half ago. And I did. We shot in Atlanta due to financial reasons. They have all sorts of tax credits so you can stretch your dollar. We shot a hard in, hard out 30 days. Six 5-day weeks. I was there for three of those weeks. I had to fly back for important obligations… like my daughter’s birthday party. (Laughter)
I remember the first day pulling up to set. It was surreal. I’ve worked on so many sets, so I could appreciate the scale of it all. When I saw the ten 18-wheelers lined up, I thought—oh my gosh, these are here because of my idea.
——————⇒ Were you tempted to go over to the grips and give them a hand?
JD: There was this one day when we were shooting on a river bank and it was not an easy load in. It was this incredibly muddy road and I was like—I’m so sorry guys! Next time I’ll write—“we’re on a paved road with many smooth entrances and ample parking.”
I loved being there. And it’s the silly things that you don’t even consider until you get there, like my name was on a chair.
——————⇒ Did you take a picture?
JD: Are you kidding? I took the chair! (Laughter)
It’s truly humbling to see that many people working to bring your vision to life. At that point you do have to let your baby go and come to terms with this now being Kyle’s baby. He’s steering this massive ship.
I just can’t believe how lucky I am. I’ve read so many great scripts that have never been made and here is my first script being made.
——————⇒ What was the biggest lesson you learned from this experience of seeing your script come to life?
Specificity. Consider every single detail. If you write it on that page, be prepared that one day it may come to life. The script is ultimately the king, particularly for the art department. There’s a scene where the main character throws a huge axe. I think I wrote a double-edged, over-sized battle axe. Well that was someone’s job in the art department to make exactly that thing because that is what I wrote.
If it is important to you, you have to write it on that page, because that’s the instruction someone is going to need one day to do their job.
On the flip side, there was a party scene and when I wrote it I was picturing a friend’s house from when I was growing up. We used to have parties there. You’d walk in the front door to this lofted entry way and there were stairs that went down to this grand living room. So that’s what I wrote. But to me it was just a party house. It didn’t need to be exactly like that. When I saw some of the pictures from the location scouts with the stairs in the entry way, it was like—holy crap, the scout went out and found the house.
But really this scene could have taken place in any house. It was a big reminder that you do have a lot of responsibility when you’re writing. Even though you’re eventually going to hand it over to a director, I didn’t quite realize how much ownership of the world I’d have, if it ever got on screen.
——————⇒ You’re married with a family. The movie has just come out. You’re a long way from the guy who drove out here from Florida. What’s the one piece of advice you’d give that guy who drove out here, your younger self, if you could?
I would say—be very honest with yourself—about what it is you want to do and about understanding the sacrifices that are going to be required of you. I was so fortunate at Florida State. The head of the film program was this man named Reb Braddock—a remarkable filmmaker and a remarkable teacher—He didn’t blow smoke, you know? He told us all around graduation time—it’s going to take ten years. It’s so true.
Yes, there are those wonder kids, but they’re the exception, not the rule. Whatever your trade, be it writer, cinematographer or editor—you’ve just got to stick it out. This just happens to be an industry where there’s no such thing as the fast track. Be prepared to go home at Christmas when you’re 32 years old to answer questions like—how is that writing thing going? Try explaining to Uncle Bob how excited you are that you had a meeting with a guy, who knows a guy who works at Disney, and how that made your year!
You have to believe in yourself and give it ten years. Genuinely stick to that. That’s how long it takes to build both your professional network and your skill.
Consider every single detail. If you write it on that page, be prepared that one day it may come to life.
So be honest with yourself—do you have that in you? I know a lot of guys who have had five years in them. Some had only three. Some of these guys, I really believe that if they had stuck it out, they too could have had a movie in the theaters this week.
I believe I’m a talented, creative person, but when I look around, I don’t see that I’m heads and tails above any other of my friends who are writers. I just stuck it out… and got a little lucky.
Be prepared to stick it out and trust that you are getting somewhere, even when it might not feel like it. Because you’ll realize that your “big break” is never the big break you think it is. Getting a manager for me was like—I made it! But in reality, I got one person to agree that I’m worth her time to make some phone calls. (Laughter)
Having someone on your side is a huge step forward, but how do you explain that to your mom? Over time, however, you will notice that these little tiny steps eventually do add up. “A journey of a thousand miles,” right? That is what’s really quite amazing. In Hollywood, it’s true. It just takes time.
Look out for the next Mini Series coming soon!
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