Friday, 25 October 2019

Getting Your Story To The Big Screen: An Interview with Countdown Screenwriter & Director, Justin Dec

Our guest today at Into The Script has quite an impressive story.  He started off in the industry finding work any way he could, working several Production Assistant jobs along the way.  In the meantime he began writing and making his own short films, some of which were very successful on festival circuits. 

While continuing to put in work on film and TV sets, he also gathered quite a following with his comedy shorts on Youtube.

Thirteen years later, here he is as the writer and director of a major Hollywood film, the much anticipated horror/thriller Countdown, which by the way hits theaters TODAY!!! 

We’re excited to welcome to Into The Script, Justin Dec.

First off Justin, thank you for taking the time to speak with me and for sharing your story and industry insights with Into The Script and our readers!

You started off in the industry back in 2006, working on several successful TV and Film sets as a Production Assistant, then began writing and directing your own comedy shorts, which led to a large following on the internet, including Youtube, all while continuing your PA work. 

Now here you are in 2019, writing and directing a major Hollywood film, Countdown.  In what ways have your years of experience on film sets as a PA helped you grow as a writer, and gotten you to this point in your career?

My advice to aspiring filmmakers is to work as much as you can on other peoples projects. The experience I gained on the many crews I was a part of was invaluable. 

The first movie I ever worked on was called CANVAS, starring Marcia Gay Harden and Joe Pantoliano. It was a little $1 million dollar indie shot in Hollywood, Florida.

I started out as an unpaid intern in the office. I was so excited to be there that I was the first one in and the last one out. 

The first Assistant Director on the film, an amazing mentor of mine named Brian Moon, saw how eager I was and asked me to be a production assistant on set. 

Brian loved my positive attitude and by the end of the movie, he told me he was taking me under his wing. He made his 2nd Assistant Director on a commercial in the Bahamas starring Sean Connery and directed by Jan De Bont! That was my second job ever! 

I felt like the luckiest guy in the world. 

After that, I worked non-stop, climbing the production ladder in Miami and spending every penny I made (and you don’t make a lot of pennies as a PA) cutting my teeth writing/directing/editing my own short films.

13 years of working on sets, getting used to the hours, learning how to communicate with the crew, the actors and the creatives was a gift. 

There’s no way I would’ve been able to direct my first feature without that experience and even though it took a long time to get here, I wouldn’t change a thing.

A lot of people in the online writing community write short film scripts, then aren’t sure what their next step should be.  What advice can you give someone that is feeling stuck, as far as what to do with their script, especially if they are interested in making their film independently?

If you have a short that you believe in, my advice would be to go out and make it. 

With todays technology, there’s no reason not to try. If nothing else, you’ll learn so much. Every time I make a new project, I can’t begin to tell you how much I learn. Then I take that knowledge and apply it to the next one. 

But you have to start somewhere. 

Even if you have to shoot it on your iPhone, just do it. Whether the results are good or bad, you’ll be happy you did. Every time I’ve made a short and put it online, it has always led to something good. Doors lead to doors. 

Another hot topic amongst writers is always the “dreaded pitch.” Can you take us through that process for you in regard to pitching Countdown

Did you have any rejections prior to it being picked up by STX Entertainment? If so, what did you learn from it?  And of course, we would love to hear of any tips or advice that you might have for someone that is preparing for their first pitch.

I equate pitching to an audition. Just like actors have to learn lines and pour their hearts out in front of a room of strangers, so do filmmakers. 

You will get nervous. That’s unavoidable. 

You just have to accept it and try not to get in your own head. 

Be very prepared and make it a conversation as much as possible. I brought a simple beat sheet of the movie with me that I could reference throughout the pitch in case I got lost, which will happen when you’re telling a long story. 

It’s okay to have that. It shows that you’re prepared. 

It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know the story backwards and forwards. It’s just a utility in case you get off track. 

In the days leading up to your meeting, you should tell the pitch to as many people as you can. Saying it out loud is important so you’re not saying it for the first time in the room. Have people ask you questions. There’s nothing worse than not knowing the answer to a question you never thought of about your own story. Try to get all that out of the way beforehand. 

My last advice is for when you’re in the waiting room before the meeting. Take a long, deep breath and look around. Appreciate that one of YOUR ideas has has gotten you to this place and feel good about that. 

You SHOULD feel good about that. It’s an enormous achievement. 

Be proud and confident and look at the pitch meeting as an opportunity to do what you do best: telling stories. Don’t focus on whether or not it will sell. 

Focus on the joy of what you’ve created. People love hearing a good story that’s well told.

Your upcoming horror/thriller Countdown is vastly different than anything you have released prior.  I think at some point we have all pondered the question of “If you could find out when you were going to die, would you want to know?”  With Countdown, you seem to have taken that hypothetical concept and turned it into a realistic scenario, by means of technology, which is a fascinating idea! 

Can you tell us what inspired the idea behind this film? And what was your writing process for the script, from concept to finish?

The whole idea started when I was setting a timer on my phone. 

As I watched the numbers tick backwards, I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be creepy if it was counting down to my death? Totally normal thought, I know. I took that idea and wrote a 5 page short — a sort of proof of concept that I filmed in my apartment over two nights. 

I was super inspired at the time by David Sandberg’s Lights Out short and the incredible journey that took him on. 

Once the short was finished, I spent a lot of money sending it to festivals with the hope that someone would see the potential in it. I also sent it to my friends Sean Anders and John Morris (writer/directors of Daddy’s Home 1 &2, Instant Family). I had been sending Sean & John my comedy shorts for years and they were super supportive. 

When I sent them Countdown, Sean immediately called me and said, “Stop sending this to festivals. Let’s turn this into a movie.” It was every aspiring filmmakers dream. 

Looking back, it’s really funny to me that I had been sending the comedy guys my comedy shorts for years but it was the horror short that got their attention. 

I guess the lesson there is to take risks. 

If you have an idea that you feel passionate about, make it. 

You never know what doors it will take you through. 

Once Sean and John came on board, we worked hard on coming up with a solid pitch that we took all over town. It was a nerve-wracking month of meetings and negotiations before we officially sold the pitch. Then came the writing. 

First, I had to write a treatment. 

I started by fleshing out the pitch into a 45 page document that I sent out to the team. We’d have weekly meetings where everyone would chime in with their notes and I’d go off and rework the treatment. 

Once everyone was happy with where it was heading, then I was officially “commenced” to start writing the script. 

What I quickly learned was that no matter how detailed you are with the treatment, it WILL change once you start writing script pages. 

Once your characters voices come to life, the choices you made from a logical standpoint suddenly don’t make sense emotionally. 

Things evolve. That’s something that happened throughout and, trust me, that’s a good thing.

A script is a living, breathing blueprint. 

If you’re willing to be open to fresh ideas from the people around you, whether it’s a producer or an actor or an executive, it’s going to get better and better. 
At least that was my experience. 

Every time I wrote a new draft, I would make a very simple beat sheet of that version and step back to make sure the pieces were all there. 

I used every tool in the book: I made sequences, pinned index cards on a cork board, wrote out individual character arcs and mapped out where they overlapped. You name it. 

Every time I did this, I could see what the script was missing and I’d make the adjustments. Then, just like in the treatment phase, I’d send the draft out to the team and we’d have weekly notes meetings. 

Notes are tough. 

There’s no sugarcoating it. I’d feel pretty bad for a day or two after but then I’d get back to work and the script would always get better. 

That’s the hardest part of being a working writer. 

You have to set aside your ego and be open to other ideas because filmmaking is a collaboration. It happens during every stage of the process: writing, directing and post. How you handle that will go a long way in defining whether you’ll be able to enjoy the experience or not. 

Once the script was locked and everyone was happy, then we went into prepping the film. 

The last thing I’ll say about this process is that the shooting script you start with and the movie you end up with will be different. Not 100% different, but like I said, the script is a living, breathing blueprint. 

You’ll get new ideas when you watch the actors rehearse the scene, actors will have a character thought that makes the scene better, your DP will have an idea for a shot that could change everything, a producer will have a great note that will change things. 

Much like the pitching stage, as long as you know your story backwards and forwards and you’re incredibly prepared, it’s easy to pivot in those moments. 

My motto is, the best idea wins. Your job as a storyteller/director at that point is to be the gatekeeper of those ideas, guiding your story towards the best version possible.

Is there any piece of advice that you have been given over the years that you feel like has been integral to your success in the film industry?  And would you mind sharing it with us?

Never give up. Never surrender. Perseverance wins the day. 

It took me 13 years to get here. 

If you focus all of your energy on whatever your dream is, as long as you work hard and never give up, I truly believe anything is possible.

Kevin Wilde is an up and coming screenwriter, as well as a feature writer for Into The Script.

Everyday is Halloween for Kevin, as he has an unrelenting passion for all things horror. Influenced by the likes of masterminds such as John Carpenter, Stephen King, Kevin Williamson, Eli Roth, and Rob Zombie, you can certainly look forward to many horrifying tales that will have you sleeping with the lights on.

You can find Kevin on Instagram and Facebook.

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