Scott Martin has been a writer, director, actor, and producer of independent films since 2005. His new film, Big Kill, brings back the classic Western in an age of superheroes. The film stars Martin as Jake Logan, a gambler and gunfighter on the run from a Mexican general (Danny Trejo) and a gang of New Mexico cowboys.
Jake and his partner, Travis Parker (Clint Hummel) agree to guide Philadelphia accountant Jim Andrews (Christoph Sanders) to the town of Big Kill, Arizona, where Jim expects to meet his brother. When the trio arrives in town, they find themselves targeted by a power-hungry Preacher (Jason Patric) and the colorful gunfighter Johnny Kane (Lou Diamond Phillips).
Scott was kind enough to open up about his process for writing “Big Kill,” as well as the twelve-year process he took to get it made.
Thanks for letting me get a chance to talk to you. As your press agent might have mentioned, I write for an advice blog for screenwriters.
Yes, she did mention that. I was looking forward to talking to you. Not a lot of people want to talk about the screenwriting process, so it's nice to finally talk about it.
I got a chance to see the movie. It was really well done. It had that flavor of an old-school Western.
Thank you, that's what I was going for. I was going for a little bit older style and feel. I wanted the older feel while shooting with modern techniques.
In this era of big-time superhero movies, what made you want to write a Western, of all things?
I've been a big fan of Westerns my whole life. It's probably my favorite genre. I love the feel of them. I've always wanted to make one.
How did you come up with the story for it?
I wanted to make it more like a buddy movie. I took some influence from movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and a lot from Silverado, but also from some from the ‘60s, like the Italian “Spaghetti Westerns” and the American Westerns of the time.
I wrote the screenplay about 12 years ago. Since then, I've gotten more experience as a writer and a filmmaker. When the opportunity arose to make this film, I jumped at it.
I wanted it to be a travel adventure, so you could follow these guys (Jake and Travis) on an adventure. When we get to the town, we settle into the meat of the story. This is where we get to meet these larger-than life-characters. We start telling a more classic-style Western at this point.
You definitely have some colorful characters, like “The Preacher”, Johnny Kane, and Felicia Stiletto. What was your approach to writing these characters?
When I write, I first come up with a basic story. As I break down the story more, I pull out the main characters and do full on bios of these people. I knew that I wanted these larger-than-life types of characters, that's why I named them “The Preacher and “The Mayor” and “Felicia Stiletto”.
I wanted them to have, and I almost hate to say this, but that “James Bond” feel to them. To me, Felicia Stiletto is my “Bond Girl”. That's why she has that name. She uses the stiletto as her weapon of choice, so that’s why I gave her that name.
I wanted Johnny Kane to be a sociopath. When he walks into a saloon, he's like a peacock. He just struts into the room, and I wanted that feel for him. The Preacher would be the more quiet one, and that's how they just came together.
You have a lot of memorable characters, and you also have a lot of action. When you were writing the action scenes, did you write it shot-for-shot? Did you write out every bit of action, or did you just sketch it out?
I was very specific. I guess there are different ways of doing it, but I write it how I see it. I write it as if I'm watching the movie. I don't want to get too long-winded, because no one wants to read that. It's a screenplay, not a book. However, I wanted it to be specific enough for, when people are reading it, they know what's going on.
When I wrote it, I wasn't planning on directing it. I was writing it strictly from a screenwriter standpoint, so I was very specific in the action sequences. The (midpoint) shootout was not written as specifically as the others, mainly because I didn't know where it was going to be shot. However, the scene with Johnny Kane and the Kid, I wrote that as being very specific.
The shootout at the end, the final showdown, those (directions) were specific as well. I even wrote down, “Johnny Kane steps forward, then Jake steps forward, and the others take their positions. The fight has already begun before shots are fired.” They're all positioning themselves, so it was all written out. Even in the final shootout, with Jim and The Preacher, that was very specific.
And there was a nice twist on it (which I'm not going to spoil here). Overall, the script seems very well done. I know you said it took you 12 years to get this made. But how long did it take you to actually write the script?
I write pretty quickly, but I do a lot of pre-writing before I start the script. Every scene, I break down into a paragraph, until I come up with about a six-page or 8-page treatment, and then I write the movie out.
If I remember correctly, it took about 2 to 3 weeks (for the first draft), then I did a couple of rewrites for sure. And then it sat for over a decade. About two months before we started pre-production, I did some cleanup on it, just kind of updated it a little bit, but not much. I pretty much stuck true to the original script.
You said that you didn't intend to direct it originally, but you end up directing and acting it anyway. How are you able to keep all the roles separate between writer, director, and actor?
It can be challenging. The writing and directing kind of go hand-in-hand. There were times I would do a rewrite right there on set. I would just sit down with pen and paper and write something. Again, I write as I see the movie, so those parts just go well together.
As far as the acting side, my character, Jake, didn't have the biggest story arc. He's kind of a curmudgeon. He doesn't always want to fight, but he's the best fighter. If I had to play the role of Jim, he had a bigger character arc, and that would have been more difficult.
Since you've written a bunch of scripts, and you've had several films made, what advice would you give aspiring screenwriters?
One of the best pieces of advice I was given early in my career was this: Once you start writing a screenplay, don't stop. Do not stop, don't go back, don't start editing or changing scenes. Make sure you get to the end. Otherwise, you may never finish it.
Every script I write, I always get to a scene that I know has to go there, but I don't know what it'll be yet. I know who's in it and all those things, so instead of stopping my progress, I'll write in all caps, “THIS IS WHAT'S GOING TO GO HERE IN THIS SCENE, THIS IS WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN”, and I'll move on. The best piece of advice I can give is, “Keep moving.”
Anyone who's been writing, especially if you're new to it, at some point in writing, you'll think your script is the worst script ever written. You'll think that nobody would ever want to read this. You won't think this is any good in any way shape or form.
Don't believe yourself. Keep going. There's a reason you're writing it, so believe in that reason. Trust that reason, and keep going.
Big Kill opens October 19.
Thanks to Scott Martin and Melissa Smith at Allied Integrated Marketing
If you need help with your script, contact Story Into Screenplay at storyintoscreenplayblog(at)gmail(dot)com, or send a message through our Facebook page.
Twenty years ago, the film Rounders brought the poker variation known as “no-limit Texas hold'em” to the wider public consciousness. The movie inspired thousands of home-game players to pursue the game, including a young Tennessee accountant named Chris Moneymaker, who achieved his own “Hollywood ending” by winning the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event and launching the decade's “poker boom”.
Final Hand of WSOP 2003 - YouTube
If you've ever watched the TV coverage of no-limit hold'em poker tournaments, you've seen how dramatic some of the confrontations between players can be. If you watch closely, you can see how the action of these high-stakes tournaments can add intrigue and tension to your story.
Character Is As Character Does, Not As Character Says
One of the most dramatic aspects of TV poker tournaments is the tension that the players show as they must make a crucial decision. In most cases, the player will remain silent for minutes at a time while they deliberate whether to fold their hand, call the bet, or raise the stakes.
Timex vs. Quoss - WPT Alpha8 St. Kitts - YouTube
While such a long silent period in a screenplay may not always work, screenwriters should understand how to create tension from the situation, rather than from extensive dialogue. Since poker players are not allowed to tell the truth when asked about their cards during a hand, screenwriters should apply that rule and put their characters in positions that require them to lie and increase the tension in their scenes.
Keep The Audience In The Know
Another appealing aspect of TV poker tournaments is the “hole card cam”, which allows the TV viewers to see the cards each player holds. (NOTE: The "hole card cam" was invented by Henry Orenstein, a Polish immigrant and Holocaust survivor who also helped launch the "Transformers" toy line in the U.S.) While the audience is privy to this information, the other players aren't. This information allows the audience to recognize when a player is bluffing, or when they have the best hand, which keeps the viewer invested in watching the results.
Best Poker Hand Ever WSOP 2012 - YouTube
While many rookie writers value the “twist” ending, this technique can come across as more of a way for the writer to show off, rather than a way to keep the audience engaged. The classic horror trope of showing the killer on one side of the door and the soon-to-be victim on the other has kept audiences engaged for decades. Not only is it not a sin to reveal information to the audience before the characters know, it can keep the audience riveted to see the character's reaction when they find out.
Around The Turn And Down The River
After each player receives their two hole cards and decides whether they want to stay in the hand, the dealer puts out three cards on the table, face-up, for each remaining player to use. These three cards are collectively known as “the flop”. After another round of betting, the dealer puts out a fourth card, called “the turn”. Another round of betting ensues, and the dealer puts out the fifth community card, called “the river”. The remaining players show their hands in a “showdown” at the end of the hand.
Poker Hand with Incredible Turn of Events at WSOP - YouTube
This structure bears a resemblance to the “three-act structure” often taught in most screenwriting classes. The character starts off with the hand they're dealt, and must make a decision to proceed with their journey. The character “flops” into a new situation at the start of Act II and encounters new allies (a strong hand) or new enemies (a weak hand). The story takes a “turn” at the midpoint of Act II, then the character takes a trip down a menacing “river” at the start of Act III, leading up to a “showdown” with the antagonist.
Standing Still Is Not An Option
In no-limit hold'em, two players are required to make minimum “blind” bets before the hand starts to ensure that at least some chips are already in the pot. In tournament play, the minimum bets increase at specific time increments. As the blinds go up, the player's holdings get relatively smaller, even if they maintain the same amount of chips. The increasing minimum bets force players with "short stacks" into desperate moves to stay alive.
Legend#29 WSOP 2006 Negreanu vs Peters - YouTube
In all types of fiction, but especially in screenwriting, stasis equals death, at least the death of the audience's interest. When the character chooses to stand still, the world will still move on around them—and, quite possibly, run over them. The writer must keep the character moving, either physically or emotionally or both, to keep the story going and to maintain the audience's interest.
Heads-Up To The Finish
When the final two players of the tournament remain, they face off in “heads-up” play. These final hands are often as much about will and skill as they are about cards and chips. The final two players may have clashed previously over the course of hours or days, but now it's for all the marbles.
Daniel Negreanu Sick Hand at WSOPE Final Table - YouTube
Whether it's poker, boxing, MMA, or tennis, audiences love to see a great one-on-one matchup. The same appeal holds in screenplays. Whenever the writer can set up a climactic confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist, whether that confrontation uses fists, guns, legal tactics, or emotional manipulation, the audience will want to see who wins.
The most thrilling part of any no-limit poker hand is when one player bets all their chips on a single hand. If they win, they double up and stay in the tournament. If they lose, it's “Wait Til Next Year.” This moment comes when the player says two simple words: “All In”.
Lucky winning poker $ 50.8 million - Mega Big Win - YouTube
As a writer, you have to risk a lot to put your story on paper. You have to risk putting in long hours for little or no reward. You have to risk missing out on fun times with friends and family to work on your story. You have to risk feeling like your story isn't good enough for anyone to want to read or see.
Just like in poker, the only way to win at the screenwriting game is to go “All In”.
If you want your story to be a winner, Story Into Screenplay offers a wide range of script services, including coverage reports, rewrite services, and both live and online hourly consultations.
You can email Story Into Screenplay at storyintoscreenplayblog(at)gmail(dot)com, or send a message through the Facebook page.
"It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense." - Mark Twain
From Homer's Iliad, to Shakespeare's “history plays” to the recent spate of “based on a true story” movies like BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, First Man, and White Boy Rick, authors and dramatists have found a wealth of story ideas in historical events. However, films and TV shows that have purported to tell “true stories” have been attacked for not always sticking to the facts.
The important factor that these critics fail to take into account is that the script writer's job is to tell an entertaining story, not to recite the actual events. To paraphrase Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy from Star Trek, “Dammit, Jim, I'm a screenwriter, not a historian!”
In recent months, I've worked with a few clients who have been developing scripts based on historical figures and events. While the stories they want to tell are compelling, these writers also risk being drawn down what's called the “research rabbit hole”. They get so intent on doing all the research and making sure their facts are correct, that they forget that their job is to TELL A STORY, not write a history paper.
The key to writing a successful historical screenplay is the same as that of writing a successful script out of pure imagination: create compelling characters, and place them into conflict. The VOTE Method can show you how to create strong characters in just a few lines, as well as how to create powerful conflicts between those characters.
One of the facets of a successful screenplay is the creation of a memorable antagonist. In some historical screenplays, the writer had to forgo historical accuracy to create an antagonist that could challenge their main character. In American Sniper, screenwriter Jason Hall created “The Butcher”, an enemy sniper to challenge American sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper). In A Beautiful Mind, writer Akiva Goldsman created the character Parcher (Ed Harris) to represent John Nash's (Russell Crowe) mental illness.
Just as with adaptations from other media, a writer who seeks to create a screenplay based on true events should not tie themselves down to those events, characters, and sequences if they don't fit the narrative. Changing the order of events, combining characters, or even making up characters out of whole cloth is totally permissible (within reason) when writing a historical screenplay.
Your job is to do enough research to establish the characters, get a feel for the events, and tell the story in the most compelling and entertaining way possible. After all, “Titanic” wasn't the most historically accurate film of all time, either, but that didn't stop it from making over $2.1 BILLION worldwide.
Now that's what I call “making history”!
If you need advice on how to make your historical screenplay resonate with audiences, contact Story Into Screenplay. We offer one-on-one consultations, coverage-style reports, and full script writing and re-writing services. You can reach us at storyintoscreenplayblog(at)gmail(dot)com, or send a message through our Facebook page.
I realize I'm late to the party, but I recently had the “pleasure” of watching The Room in a double feature with The Disaster Artist, the adaptation of actor Greg Sestero's book about the making of the infamous film.
Since The Room came out and became a cult hit (in spite of itself), many screenwriters have asked, “How does a piece of garbage like that get made, when I can't even get anyone to look at my scripts?”
The answer is simple. The Room was nothing short of a vanity project for writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau. He reportedly poured more than $6 million into the project in 2002, which comes out to nearly $8.5 million in 2018 dollars.
Aside from the amateurish acting, the inconsistent direction, and the excruciating love scenes, one of the hallmarks of The Room was its poor script. This attempt at a screenplay featured characters whose relationships were unclear, characters who appeared for the first time past the halfway point, and storylines that were picked up and dropped with no explanation.
If The Room was a train wreck, then The Disaster Artist shows how the engineer and the driver got together to drive the train straight off the rails. The film shows Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) as a modern-day Don Quixote, with Sestero (Dave Franco) as his Sancho Panza, both of them tilting at the windmill known as “Hollywood Stardom”.
Where The Room is excruciating to watch, The Disaster Artist is oddly inspiring. It shows how someone with no talent, no experience, and a complete unwillingness to work with others can succeed if they're stubborn enough. (Insert contemporary political reference here.)
In its own way, The Disaster Artist parallels one of the finest films of all time, and my personal favorite to use as a teaching tool: Rocky. In both films, a lead character with an unrecognizable accent attempts to reach the heights of their profession, assembles a rag-tag crew, and achieves their dreams, but not in the way that they had anticipated.
The success of Rocky, the cult status of The Room, and the Academy Award-nominated screenplay of The Disaster Artist shows that audiences love a great underdog story. The lesson to take away from the successes of these three films is simple: Don't be afraid to be terrible.
Your ideas suck. Your writing is unreadable. Your dialogue sounds like it's coming from an alien who's just recently learned the concept of social interaction. Your characters have the depth of wet tissue paper. Your story has the frenetic pace of a tranquilized sloth.
Your first draft will suck. Get used to it.
Your rewrites will feel like a never-ending root canal in your brain. Them's the breaks.
Every reader will find something new and different to hate about your script. Just accept it.
You will hate your script, your characters, and your life. You will become a miserable excuse for a human being.
How's that for motivation?
As the old workplace poster says, “You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps.”
As a writer, you have to be crazy just to get started. You have imaginary conversations in your head with people who don't exist. Not only that, you expect companies to pay millions of dollars and employ dozens of people to take your writing from the page to the screen. Then, you expect people to pay up to $15 a ticket to watch what you wrote. If that's not crazy, then what is?
Was Tommy Wiseau crazy? By nearly every objective measure, he was, to use the clinical terms, nuttier than a fruitcake. But did he succeed? He made his movie, his way, with his script. A decade and a half later, people are still watching it, talking about it, and (GASP!) blogging about it.
So enjoy writing your terrible script. Have fun pounding your pile of garbage into something resembling a usable screenplay. Make party hats out of those harsh coverage reports and form rejection letters.
Tell your story. Write your script. Get it made. Tilt at those windmills.
Because you're the only one who can.
If you need help in improving your “terrible” script, Story Into Screenplay can help. We offer script consultations, coverage reports, and expert advice on how to hone your screenplay. Contact us at storyintoscreenplayblog[at]gmail[dot]com, or send us a message on our Facebook page.
Gerald Hanks of Story Into Screenplay will be appearing at the Comicpalooza sci-fi convention again this year. The convention will be held at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas, from Friday, May 25, to Sunday, May 27.
Gerald will be on two panels:
1:30 - 2:30pm
Horror for the 21st Century: Film and Literature
3:00 - 4:00pm
No Money, No Problem - Screenwriting for Low Budget Filmmaking
We'll be posting more details and panels as they become available.