An interview with Screenwriter Jeremy Drysdale who wrote the US indie hit ‘GRAND THEFT PARSONS’. So how does the writer work?07/05/2013
Screenwriter’s are the often overlooked stars of film whilst actors and directors take centre stage. But without a good script, there is no film –no vehicle for the stars or directors to ride on. So Creative Mapping decided to go to the source of any good film – the writer – with Jeremy Drysdale who wrote the US indie hit ‘GRAND THEFT PARSONS’, starring Johnny Knoxville and Christina Applegate. The film was an official selection for both the London and Sundance Film Festivals. Since then, Jeremy pitched and sold a romantic comedy called ‘A WHOLE NEW YOU’ to Wes Craven and wrote the worldwide bestselling video game ‘BATTLEFIELD 2: MODERN COMBAT’ which made over two hundred million dollars for Electronic Arts. He wrote ‘BAD SANTAS’ for Channel 4, and his ‘WORLD OF STUNT’ – a mockumentary feature – is due to go into production late Summer and his action thriller script THE DROP has just been sold to a major production company for a Los Angeles shoot, also later in the year. Jeremy’s first novel will be published worldwide in the summer. So how does the writer work?
Grand Theft Parsons – Trailer
Tell us briefly who you are and what you do.
I’m a writer. Over the years, I have written films (including GRAND THEFT PARSONS), television (BAD SANTAS), video games (BATTLEFIELD 2: MODERN COMBAT) and I have a novel coming out in the late summer. I’ve also been commissioned to start work on a musical stageplay, which will happen later in the year.
How did you become a screenwriter? What was the journey from finishing your studies to being here today?
I left school at sixteen and had a variety of jobs until I started my ‘proper working life’ as an advertising copywriter and eventually ended up as the co-creative director of a large communications agency called Visage. Then, completely bored with the concept of writing something in the fewest possible words, I left and became a full-time screenwriter. It wasn’t actually a good time to do this as money was tight and my son had just been born, but I had managed to get an option on the true story which became GRAND THEFT PARSONS and I used that as an excuse to jump ship.
How did that come about?
Years before, I had heard a fantastic story about a guy who stole his best friend’s body and cremated it in the desert to fulfill a promise each had made to the other. When I discovered that the dead guy was Gram Parsons and the Burner was still around, I called him up and asked him for an option. (The Burner, not Gram Parsons, obviously.) The guy was called Phil Kaufman and he tried to get rid of me by saying ‘I don’t talk on the phone, so you’ll have to drop by’, knowing that as I was in Surrey and he was in Nashville, that wasn’t likely to happen. Except that I didn’t realize it was a brush-off and flew over the next day. My return flight wasn’t booked for another three days, so I pretty much moved in and bored the rights out of him!
Can you elaborate on what it is you do?
I just write. Generally, I come up with an idea, spend weeks working it up, months writing it and years trying to get it sold. Like most creatives, I’m pretty useless at everything else – but I can write.
When writing a film or show or game, are the scripts or ideas brought to you, or do you actively seek out new material to develop?
Generally, I come up with my own ideas, although sometimes I’ll be asked to adapt something. On rare occasions, I have polished other peoples’ work – this pays well and isn’t hard, but feels a bit like cheating. I prefer to start with a blank page and go from there…
How do you know when you’re onto a winning idea?
Unfortunately, not until the work is finished and I go back for a read after a couple of weeks of allowing it to percolate. I have thrown away scripts which took six months to write because they just didn’t work, which is pretty wrenching. Also, my idea of winning is often no-one else’s idea of winning, although I am always right. Mostly.
How long does it take to bring a script idea to fruition, from the initial concept to completion and handing over to the producer?
About four months. I spend a very long time on the step outline, which will end up as a list of every scene in the right order – hopefully containing the right words – but without dialogue. Perhaps six weeks on that, then another six on the dialogue, two weeks percolating and then a two-week polish. If you are writing for producers, they may stipulate a first draft in three months, which is actually pretty tight – as screenwriters don’t ever show anyone a first draft.
What do you want to achieve with your films and the stories you write? The bigger picture so to speak?
With all my writing – not just the films – the aim is twofold: To entertain and to earn enough money to get by. Neither are easy, if I’m honest.
What are some of the challenges you face as a writer?
Going back to the last answer, I would say that actually making a living is the biggest challenge. I’ve done pretty well over the years, but I can still go a whole year without income, which is scary and impacts on my creativity in quite an alarming way. In broader terms, I was finding it hard to even get my British scripts read, such is the parlous state of the British Film Industry (sic.)
I tend to write bigger, more overtly commercial projects, and they don’t easily get funded here – which sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? If you write a film about life on a northern council estate, you can get public development money which isn’t available if you write about a diamond heist in Mayfair. Once I switched to writing films set in the States, things became immeasurably easier.
Which directors or actors do you especially admire right now?
I’ve always liked Fincher and the late Tony Scott. (He’s dead, but I still admire him – so that’s allowed, right?) I can see these are pretty unadventurous choices, but I tend to admire the scripts, rather than their directors.
What are your three favourite scripts?
I love the script for SE7EN, which is perfection – where else would the bad guy give himself up after the second act and the tension still build to a fantastic reveal? The first two GODFATHER films are wonderful, of course – perfect exercises in the exposure of character and the relentless build of conflict and drama. And ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST is gloriously, riotously perfect.
When you’ve finished writing a film script, are you ever truly satisfied with the end results or are you always tweaking and perfecting?
I tweak a lot. Because I spend so long on structure beforehand, I tend to rewrite less than do many others once the first draft is complete – but I’ll normally tweak dialogue, cut extraneous scenes and finesse the thing to death. My last script had twenty-eight draft numbers before it sold, but the changes between each version weren’t that massive. Of course, a lot depends upon the notes you get and often you’ll make changes which you aren’t especially happy with, because the people who are paying for the work want you to do them. That’s the nature of the beast.
What work are you most proud of in your career so far?
I think the last script I delivered is my best work so far. It’s called THE DROP and is in ‘real-time’, which is something I’ve been trying to get right for years. I hope I’ve nailed it this time, which means that the hook doesn’t constrain the entertaining telling of the story. If you watch it, I hope you’ll decide that there was no other way to tell it…
Is writer’s block ever an issue? If so how do you deal with that?
The rather structured approach I take to screenwriting means that once I have my extensive step-outline, I always know what I’m going to be writing next. I do often have problems with constructing that initial outline, although that is less ‘writers block’ and more ‘how the hell can I make this work?’
What advice would you give to young screenwriters starting out?
Don’t write what you know. Everyone always says ‘write what you know’, but that’s insane advice. Write something extraordinary – something that you HAVEN’T seen! (Although you should expose emotions in your characters which you are comfortable with, I suppose.)
What would a dream film collaboration in film be for you?
I would love to write for David Fincher, with Michael Shannon and Natalie Portman in the cast.
5 favorite music tracks that help you work?
I listen to music constantly whilst I work. Looking back at my playlist, I can see lots of action around the Soundtrack to Cabaret, plenty of Dirty Sweet, some Urban Voodoo Machine, quite a bit of Stones & Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – and a decent sprinkling of the Dropkick Murphys. (I cheated the numbers slightly there, didn’t I?)
If you had to live another life entirely, what would you be doing – and why?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. I love to write – but if I couldn’t, I would like to direct. As I can’t actually do that, I suppose I would have stayed in advertising; something which made me lots of money but offered little challenge and absolutely no pleasure. Thank god for words…