What films did you make previous to Finder’s Fee? ^ I made two short 8mm films in college. One was an animated poker game where the cards moved themselves and the beer slowly drank itself and the chips moved on their own and it was TERRIBLE. I’m talking bad. And the problem with in-camera animation is you can’t change anything. You have a 3 minute roll of film and every time you click a frame, you’re committing to another “shot.” You process the film and hold your breath as you project it for the first time. The second 8 mm short I made was called “Night of the Living Doll” and it was basically a re-telling of one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes where a doll comes to life. I tried to incorporate dialogue and music on this one. So I took a cassette recorder and I recorded some friends voices to match the actors. There were tons of sound effects because the characters get stabbed to death from the doll. There was also music. So I put all these sounds on different cassette players and as I’m watching the movie on my bedroom wall, I’m pressing PLAY and STOP and then PLAY and then STOP trying to keep up with the movie because I’m recording the sounds into ANOTHER cassette recorder. So when I finished I had done the equivilant of mixing down from four tracks to one in a very unscientific way. The surprising thing is it actually kinda worked. At least in my bedroom. So I go to school and it’s my turn to show my movie. We had a reallly nice cassette player hooked into a speaker system, so I shoved my cassette into this NEW cassette player and we started the movie. Well, I didn’t realize that every cassette player turns at a slightly different speed. It was an absolute disaster. The sync was out of sync within 15 seconds of my 3 minute movie! I got a D on the project. A freakin D. I worked my a*s off on that thing and it just blew up in my face.
Where did the inspiration for Finder’s Fee‘s story come from? ^ Finder’s Fee was part inspiration and part “I’mawriterinawritersunitandIneedtobringinsomepages” desperation. I was living in New York and I found a wallet outside my building. I took it inside and looked for a contact number. There was a driver’s license but when I called information, they had no listing. There was however, one unidentified phone number on a business card, so I called it. The guy on the other end said he knew the owner of the wallet and to send it to him and he’d get it to the guy…. so, after thinking about it for a while… I sent it. I always wondered if the guy on the other end of the phone was playing me. That got me to thinking, “what if.” The strong sprung from there. In addition, I was working for Access Hollywood as a reporter and I was about to embark on a month long trip on a bus traveling across the country carrying the Grammy trophies to the Grammy show. I was also in a writers unit and felt the pressure to return with something after being gone for four weeks! So… I took a sheet of paper and wrote down the 11 major scenes that I knew I wanted in the story and I just started writing.
How did you go about writing the script — I mean the process itself — writing daily for three hours, index cards, electro-shock therapy…? ^ The way I began Finder’s Fee was not typical of the way I had written up to that point. Starting with only 11 scene ideas and nothing else was much less structured than on other scripts. I had always thoroughly outlined in the past, knew exactly what each scene was about, where my act breaks were, where my midpoint was, etc.. As a result, with Finder’s Fee, my first draft was only 75 pages long and was really just a very thorough treatment in a sense. BUT… I had a first draft, and from my POV that is the KEY to writing. Get the first draft out. It is so much easier, for me anyway, to rewrite than write from scratch. I love rewriting because you have something to work with. I think I sometimes suck the life out of a story by working too much on the outline. It may be a form of procrastination, I’m not sure. I only know it’s been incredibly frustrating for me on the past two stories I have wanted to write. I have litererally outlined the life out of them. Okay, back to Finder’s Fee. For the second draft I knew I needed to begin the hard work, so I sat down and spent a ton of time working on character bios (I used the bone structure from Art of Dramatic Writing, Egri). That is when the characters first started to come alive and their relationships with each other, which is so much of the story, really started to reveal themselves. I can’t say enough about how much I use Egri’s book. His bone structure is so complete it just opens up tons and tons of new doors. For instance, he asks what types of magazines your character reads. Sounds a bit dull? Well, if you decide that he reads comic books, that might lead you to decide that he doesn’t just read comics, he’s a comic book freak. In fact he is always broke because he spends too much money buying collector editions of comics and then come poker time he never has any money to gamble with, which causes some friction with his poker buddies. In addition, he has an irritating habit of mimicking comic book dialogue and storylines and that really pisses off one of the other characters. So this first guy knows that whenever he wants to push his buddies button, he just mentions Batman or Spiderman, etc.. Granted, this is a very small and somewhat lame example, but my point is that with a simple choice as to reading material, you can create authentic conflict that can take you anywhere. With each draft I focused on one aspect. For instance, I might comb through every scene only focusing on THEME and how each scene relates to the theme from each characters point of view. Next draft might focus on dialogue and making each character’s voice specific and unique. And so on. Then as we brought on actors, I did another draft tailored to them. Incorporating their thoughts, and also things that I knew about them as a person or an actor that I thought might add a nice touch. All counted, I did 20 complete drafts. A ton of writing. A ton. Right around draft number 12, I benefited from another “angel” in my life. My buddy, Jim Gulian is a very successful writer/director, and I used to work for him as an actor in stuff he directed when we both lived in Seattle. So he was already a mentor to me in that sense, so I asked if he would become involved in Finder’s Fee. He immediately said yes and began working on the story with me. We spent hours and hours and hours and months and months at Starbucks in Los Angeles and Seattle. He would fly himself down to LA every other weekend for the love of the work and his love for me. A true “angel.” We turned the story every which way we could and then I would go off and write another draft. It made a huge difference having one person intimately involved with the story over the course of 8 drafts. He had a tremendous impact on the finished story and as a result shares “story by” credit with me. Oddly enough, right around the same time that Jim was infusing the project with new life, I had another writer friend, pleading with me to stop working on it altogether. “You’ve written enough. It’s just a screenplay.” That pissed me off. Not sure exactly why it bugged me, certainly the lack of respect he had for “screenwriting” but also the fact that one writer would tell another writer to just “stop”. Not because he thought I’d mined all the gold there was to find, or not because he thought the newer drafts weren’t getting better, just because he thought “you’ve written enough, stop.” F**k that. That kind of support is just no help at all. And the truth of the matter is that one of the biggest twists in the story didn’t come until draft number 14. Thank god I didn’t stop at number 12. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe you can overwrite, the key is knowing when you’ve reached that point. Ultimately you have to trust your own gut. The 20 drafts ended up taking two years to complete. But that includes writing up until shoot day 1, so a lot of the writing was going on during the period of finding money, securing actors, and ultimately pre-production.
Get the rest of the interview in part three of JEFF PROBST’S INDEPENDENT PURSUIT>>>