CS Weekly Archive > From the Trenches > 8/29/08
Making the Final Cut:
Rogue's Gallery's Brian Watanabe
CS Weekly talks with a former star of the Screenwriting Expo who's grabbed the brass ring and seen his winning script filmed with an all-star cast.
For most writers, screenplay contests are a way to get noticed by the vast machine that is Hollywood. They're a chance to get a foot wedged in the door, win some cash, and have a little something extra to say about your script. Even so, only a handful of contests carry the clout and name recognition to guarantee getting through that door, and even then seeing a winning script go into production is a rarity indeed. Which is why CS Publications was so proud to hear that 2004 Screenwriting Expo winner Brian Watanabe not only started a career as a professional screenwriter with a film in production, but did it with the very script he'd won Expo with.
Rogue's Gallery tells the story of The Fool (Joe Anderson), the latest recruit of a secret organization that employs two competing teams of spies and assassins, all taking their codenames from the Tarot deck. Taken under the not-so-sheltering wings of Judgment (Ving Rhames) and the High Priestess (Maggie Q), the Fool has to learn the ropes in an oddball workplace where office politics really is life or death and his ex-girlfriend (Odette Yustman) is his chief competition. Worse, he's the prime suspect when their top supervisor, The Devil (Jeffrey Tambor) turns up dead. Now, the assorted members from both teams are at each others throats to keep from being the next victims of a lethal "corporate downsizing."
As the production crew wraps up filming with a cast that also includes Ellen Barkin, Zach Galifianakis, and Emilie de Ravin, Watanabe flew back to Hawaii to get back to work on his next screenplay. He took some time out first, though, to talk with CS Weekly about how winning the Screenwriting Expo started his career, the thrill of seeing his first screenplay being produced, and getting out to talk to people about your writing.
I used to write the Contest Beat a bit for the magazine, and I thought I'd seen your name once or thrice before. Had you been submitting to contests for a bit before winning at Expo?
Yeah, I've got to say I might be the poster child for the contest-worth thing. Rogue's is my first script. I wrote it 2003-2004, and basically I submitted it to a bunch of contests. Actually, it's funny, what got me started was Project Greenlight. I'm an advertising copy writer, and all ad guys want to be screenwriters, so I'd had this idea in my mind for a long time. I was watching Project Greenlight one night and thought "Damn it, I can do this." I pumped out that script, and I think Greenlight was one of the first contests I entered that year. I basically just submitted to a bunch of contests. Slamdance was one of the first ones that got back to me. I think I was a semifinalist or something, but they come back with notes and they were very positive notes. It gave me the confidence to say, "I think I can do this." I entered Screenwriting Expo, obviously, and that was the big one. The other kind of instrumental contest was ScriptPimp. I didn't place in that one, but I won free notes and got into their little pipeline there. So, when I won Expo, that's when Chadwick Clough gave me a call and said he really liked the script. That's how I got hooked up with Chadwick, who ended up being a producer on this movie. Then I won Screenplay Shootout, which I was a finalist for, and various other contests.
Are you still an ad copy guy? I heard that job actually inspired this script, yes?
Yeah. I started in advertising about '98 or so. As a copy writer-art director, we're always talking about movies. We're basically making 30-second movies or scenes for radio commercials. The way I see it, it is almost like the legitimate way to get into the creative business [laughs]. It's the business where your parents are like, "He's in marketing, so I guess that's a real job." It's kind of the coward's way of getting into the creative fields.
I was working in San Francisco during the dot-com bust in 2001. There were just massive, massive layoffs. One day my art director partner walked in the door and said, "I just got downsized. I've been fired." It felt like people were getting whacked left and right. You'd walk by a cube one day and there'd be people in it, and the next day they'd be gone. They'd just disappear like ghosts. There was a lot of paranoia going on and little teams forming for a few months there. I held out, but I finally got let go. But it got me the idea for Rogue's. I spent my unemployment checks taking McKee classes and buying every sort of screenwriting book out there. I've been doing it ever since and still doing it now. It's still my day job.
The screenwriting classes and the books—did you get a lot out of them?
I definitely thought that they helped. Kind of de-mystifying everything, teaching you three-act structure, and all those things. They definitely helped.
Did things take off for you immediately after Expo?
It was actually pretty immediate. Andrew Kersey was a judge at Expo—and I think he's still involved to this day—he read the script and said he loved it. I met with him that weekend and he said he'd love to represent me. Then, like I said, concurrently with Chadwick calling me from ScriptPimp, that all started immediately. Chadwick works with Sean McKittrick, the producer of Donnie Darko, and that's how he roped in Darko Productions. Ever since then, they've been trying to get the movie made, and it's taken that long for it to get started.
How long after Expo was it before Rogue's Gallery got picked up?
Well, it got optioned spring of last year. Then, basically, it happened very quickly. In the last three or four months or so, they got Infinity Media involved to finance the movie, and once they got that, things moved pretty quickly.
Did you have to make changes? Were there a lot of differences between a contest-ready script and a studio-ready script?
I was rewriting it throughout the process. Obviously, since it's a low-budget independent, things had to be written for budget. I sort of had that in mind when I wrote it, to keep it in one location. It's all set in these underground offices. I had that in mind -- limited characters, limited space, that whole thing. I think there was another writer who took a pass at it, but I'm not really sure how much they used of his. They hired another production writer for the actual shoot, so there was that.
Some people suggest you should picture actors in roles and write for them. Were you doing that? Are any of these actors the ones you imagined?
A few of the characters I was writing for, but this was 2004 (chuckles). The High Priestess was Lucy Liu, and ended up being Maggie Q. There were a few comedic actors I was writing for, but for the most part I wasn't envisioning an actor. I was just writing the characters. Once I finished the script, I kind of thought, "Who could that be…?"
You're back in Hawaii now. Have you been an active part of production on the film?
No, not really. I guess it's a little bit of the drawback of not living in L.A.. I was out there for about nine days or so, and it was mostly just to watch and check out the process. I haven't been too much a part of production, but they definitely keep me in the loop as to what's going on. It's absolutely incredible. The cast is just amazing—better than anyone thought they could get. It's pretty nuts. I remember winning Expo and thinking that was pretty nuts, and this is definitely crazy.
If you go to DoneDeal or other online message boards, there's always people saying contests are worthless. Would you have broken in eventually without Script Pimp, the Expo, or any of those?
It's hard to say. I don't check out the boards as much, but during that year I was into all that stuff, Zoetrope, all those things. I honestly think you've just got to write something that people respond to. You can enter as many contests as you want, but if you don't write a script that people can get excited about, then it's not going to be any good. As far as whether I would've broke or not…again it's hard to say. I had a lot of lucky accidents happen. Even this whole production. Little, lucky accidents happen and things take a life of their own. It's hard to say.
What do you wish you had known when you started out doing the screenwriting contest route? Are there any pearls of wisdom you could share with people new to this little subculture of the film industry?
I would just say go out there with your best work. I don't think you get too many shots at it, so you should make sure the script you're sending out there is great. It's different for different people, but for me, taking these classes, going to screenwriting groups, and talking about story. Talking to other people about it helps a lot versus just locking yourself in a room. I've got friends out there who are still doing it, in screenwriting groups, and if you really believe you can do this, you've got to keep working at it. It's not easy, for sure.
Any hints for people once they make that first big win?
I got pretty lucky. I got hooked up with a great manager and a great producer. What can I be regretful for—my first script got produced! On this, I met some of the cast, and I met Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show), who's obviously a writer also. He congratulated me and I asked him for some advice, and he said, "Start writing your next screenplay." He had a great point. It was great and I'm happy for that whole experience, but it doesn't get any easier coming up with that next great idea. You've got to keep going and keep writing and hope the next one is as good…or better!
Peter Clines has had a lifelong love affair with the movies. He grew up in New England, where he studied English literature and education, and now lives and writes somewhere in Southern California. If anyone knows exactly where, he would appreciate a few hints.
Brian Watanabe courtesy Brian Watanabe
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