On August 24, 2009, LimitéMagazine.com originally posted my exclusive interview with Aaron Guzikowski, screenwriter of the upcoming film Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. At the time, the film was due for a release in late 2009, but after some delays, it will finally hit the big screen this September 20, following screenings at the Telluride and Toronto International Film Festivals. In the meantime, Guzikowski’s first produced screenplay, Contraband, made waves at theatres last year with Mark Wahlberg’s and Kate Beckinsale’s names above the title.
This Throwback Thursday, I’m reposting this interview in the wake of Prisoners‘ September release.
(originally posted August 24, 2009)
In New York and LA, you couldn’t spit without hitting someone who’s writing a screenplay. Out of the thousands who try, only a handful might actually sell their scripts, and even fewer will have them produced. So what’s Aaron Guzikowski’s secret?
Production company Alcon recently purchased the former New York ad agency employee’s spec script. Prisoners is a thriller about a man, who distraught by his daughter’s kidnapping, imprisons his neighbor whom he suspects committed the crime. Up until recently, there was talk of Mark Whalberg’s and Christian Bale’s involvement in the project, but that has fallen through. A director and cast are yet to be determined.
Alcon is fast-tracking the film’s development, scheduling an October 2010 release. The budget is set for $30 – 40 million, and Guzikowski’s deal is for mid-six figures against just over $1 million.
As a part-time screenwriter, myself, I sought out to determine what separates Guzikowski from all the other aspiring screenwriters.
What’s your background? Where are you from? Where did you go to school and what did you study?
I’m from Brockton, Massachusetts. I went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, where I studied art and film.
At what point did you get the writing bug?
Fourth grade. I wrote a 7-page science-fiction story for some kind of contest. I think I won a “choose your own adventure” book. I loved those books.
What’s your screenwriting background like?
I studied film, took one introductory screenwriting class; I mostly learned screenwriting from reading produced screenplays and books.
So often, I hear of writers who wake up at 5am, write for several hours, watch TV/exercise/go to work, and then get back to writing until dinner. How similar or different is your writing process?
Up until very recently I had a day job, so I’d write in the mornings before work, then at night when I got home, weekends, whenever I could. I just started writing full time and am trying to establish a new routine. So far it’s wake up, write until I can write no more, then watch movies until I pass out.
Is Prisoners your first feature?
I’ve written a few, but this will be the first to be produced.
How did you get the idea for the story? What about the idea made you think, “This could be a great movie”?
It grew out of a short story I wrote. As for what about it made me think it could be a great movie, I don’t know. I could see it in my head. I could see myself being entertained by it. That’s usually a good indicator that you should write it.
How much time did you spend developing the story and writing the script?
This was a long one; it took about two years all told.
Did you have any readers provide notes on the script while you were writing it? If so, how valuable were their notes to you? Did anyone provide any insights that ultimately lead your story in a direction you hadn’t planned?
Yes, my manager and his story editors — as well as my wife — gave me notes along the way. They were invaluable and helped me maintain perspective after multiple drafts. My manager suggested making the script more of a “two-hander” (lingo for two main protagonists), which I think really ended up enhancing the story. Getting feedback from people who know what they’re talking about and keeping an open mind are key.
How many re-writes did you go through before feeling comfortable enough to send your script to studios?
There were a lot of different versions. I lost count. There’s probably a mini-series worth of stuff I didn’t end up using.
I was once told that some studio execs and assistants will trash a script without even opening it if it’s bound with brass-plated brads instead of regular brass brads, just because they have so many scripts to go through. Knowing how much competition is out there for up-and-coming screenwriters, how much pressure did that add?
When it comes to submissions, the only thing you want to stand out is the writing, so it pays to adhere to industry standards. As for competition, there’s not much point thinking about it. Just concentrate on the story you’re trying to tell.
How did you get your script in front of the people who count? How soon before you heard back?
I entered some contests, placed in a few of them. Then I wrote a query letter to a couple management companies, asking if they wanted to read a horror script I wrote. I think it took a couple of weeks to hear back from the company I ended up signing with (though you don’t actually sign anything).
Did you have an agent or manager prior to selling the script or did you sell it without representation?
I had an agent and manager before selling.
I’m surprised to hear you already had an agent and manager. How difficult was it to get representation without having sold a script at that point?
I signed with my manager first (through a query letter), worked with him for two years developing Prisoners, then after I completed it, I signed with my agent. You don’t really need an agent until you have something that’s ready for market. In terms of how hard it was, working on the script was the hard part, and if you pay enough dues on that end, then securing representation — even without having previously sold anything — becomes a lot easier.
The deal is mid-six figures against just over $1 million. Explain what that means to those who don’t regularly watch Entourage.
It means you get part of the money now and the rest when the movie goes into production.
Writers are often very possessive over their own work — their babies. Did Alcon require any major changes in the script?
There are always going to be changes. From the producers, to the director, to the lead actors — t’s a collaborative process — and you have to be prepared for that going in. So far, there haven’t been any changes, but that will likely change when a director comes on board.
Studios often take their time producing a film, especially one with a hefty budget. Why is Alcon so adamant about fast-tracking Prisonersinto production?
It just worked out that way. But it’s pretty awesome!
Why did the Mark Whalberg and Christian Bale deal fall through?
There were a lot of things that needed to jive in order for that package to work. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out.
As of now, a director and cast are yet to be determined. Who would be your dream director and cast for this project?
Since the director and cast are still yet to been chosen, I could get myself into trouble answering this one.
A major concern writers often have is that the vision they had in writing their scripts won’t be realized when the final film is released. Is this a concern of yours? Do you have any other concerns going into production?
It’s a concern, but even if you have complete control over the creation of a movie, the end result is always going to be an unknown quantity — sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better.
Has the entire process from submitting your script up to this point gone as you thought it might? What’s surprised you the most?
How much talking I have to do as opposed to writing.
How has life changed since you sold the script? Are you still working at Digitas (ad agency)? What kind of reactions are you getting from your family and friends?
I resigned from my position at Digitas and am moving to Los Angeles. My family and friends have been great — very supportive.
Have you started working on any other projects? Do you plan to continue spec work?
I’m working on a lot of new projects, both assignment work and another original spec.
Who are your creative influences, both film related and otherwise?
My father raised me on Tolkien, Phillip K. Dick, and Alan Moore, and my mother got me into Stephen King. My little brother’s artwork was a big source of inspiration.
What about your brother’s artwork inspires you?
His artwork is scary and beautiful. Hieronymus Bosch meets E. H. Shepard. He was my constant collaborator when we were kids; we’d stage these movies in our basement. Built a dragon out of a vacuum cleaner, a box fan, and a Halloween mask. Good times!
Is there one particular thing someone’s told you that you adhere to regularly in your work?
Just focus on the writing and everything else will fall into place.
What’s your favorite movie?