Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Interview with Daniel Martin Eckhart

Daniel Martin Eckhart is a classically trained actor who lives on a farm in Switzerland. After following an unusual employment path, he studied scriptwriting in New York. Although Daniel didn't win a Nicholl Fellowship, in four attempts he managed to be a semi finalist, a quarter finalist, and twice finished in the top ten. He has worked with some of Germany’s best TV networks, producers, directors and actors, and has created top-rated TV movies. He has a passion for dark thrillers, crime stories and comic books.
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St. Gallen Cathedral
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in St. Gallen, Switzerland, a small town near the Austrian border.

What kind of a family did you grow up with?

Good family, average in most ways. My mom was the center, my dad was a salesman and on the road most of the time. My elder brother was the rebel and I was the one who watched his fights with authority, saw what worked and what didn't, and hence coasted most of the time.

When did you first take an interest in films/stories?


First time I saw moving images, i.e. for as long as I can remember. I was in love with film long before I realized people like me could be part of that magical world, could actually make the magic on screen happen.   

As a young kid my favorites were Swashbucklers [The Crimson Pirate (1952), Prince Valiant (1954), Ivanhoe (1952, The Three Musketeers (1948), The Black Swan (1942), etc.]; Westerns [Rio Bravo (1959), The Cowboys (1972), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Searchers (1956), etc.]. And, I admit it, Musicals [Singing In The Rain (1952), On The Town (1949), Brigadoon (1954), Easter Parade (1948), etc.].

As a teenager, I added Film Noir and Spaghetti Westerns to the mix.


You have a remarkable employment history. Give us a quick summation of your jobs and countries of residence.

Here goes, countries of residence in order—Switzerland, Vatican, United States, Israel, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, United States, Switzerland. Spent the first bit of my life in security (Army, United Nations), then studied acting in New York where I discovered screenwriting.

I’m curious to know: How/why did you land a job as the Pope’s bodyguard?

Joining the Pope's Swiss Guard works about the same as it does for any other job—you apply—then you either qualify or you don't. Qualifications are a bit unusual—you need to have a minimum height, you need to be Catholic, you need to be single, you need to be a graduated professional in some field, you need to have completed basic military training in Switzerland, and you need to prove that you don't have a criminal record, and the priest from your parish needs to give you a letter of recommendation. Somehow, I got in.

What was your first paying job in the screenwriting business?

That's a long story! In short, a foreign investment banker in Switzerland was totally in love with Switzerland's independence wars (around 1300)—he wanted to turn it into a Braveheart-style blockbuster and hired me to write it. When I was done with the treatment, he was arrested by Switzerland financial authorities for some sort of wheeler-dealing. I was paid but, needless to say, the film was never made. Still, a fun and most unusual first paid gig!

Who was the screenwriting teacher who had the biggest influence on you?

I had just finished acting school in New York, read a bunch of how-to books on screenwriting, and figured a semester at NYU might not hurt. It didn't. The course was run by Dina Harris and she was the first professional who read a scene of mine and who implored me to continue writing. That single short moment with her was worth that whole semester (aside from all the good writing I got done then).

Have you had a mentor or are you a self-directed screenwriter?

No, no mentor. In fact, I'm kind of solitary that way. I like to write my scripts on my own, also don't like collaborating with other writers on a script. I tried that once and ended up rewriting everything they had written! Usually, my first draft is my own, my time and I'm very protective of this time. The second draft is between me and my wife—my best and toughest critic. From then on scripts are sent to the collaboration partners at networks or production companies and as of the third draft I'm no longer protective—in fact, I love working with them to turn the script into something that will end up being filmed. The reason I enjoy collaboration is because I view the later drafts as something completely different from the first draft (which remains in pristine condition on my shelf.) I feel like Gollum about these—those many first drafts are "my preciousses".

What are three things you wish someone had told you about filmmaking when you were starting out?

I honestly can't say I had a lack of information and/or insights. I read the books, I read a ton of scripts, I analyzed them all, I did the competitions, I hustled to get a lit agent. I think I ticked pretty much all the right boxes while steering clear of the bullshit that stops you from actually writing.

If you had to suggest just one screenwriting book to a newbie writer back in Adelaide, which one would it be?

Let me say that most well-known screenwriting how-to books have bits that are valuable. I read a half dozen and found the things they all had in common—that's the gold. Where they differ it's usually a guru's grandstanding that will do nothing but make you feel inadequate as a beginning writer. 

If I had to recommend a book, I'd recommend a screenplay—read Die Hard. I'm not kidding—one of the best, tightest scripts ever. Read it, watch the movie, analyze it again and again. It is brilliant in many ways and you'll learn more from this single screenplay than you would from a ton of how-to books.
[ I endorse Daniel's comments about Die Hard. The tricky part for most newbie screenwriters is knowing where to put your hands on a copy. One option is to fork out $25 to Script Fly. You used to be able to purchase it from Amazon.Com, but it seems to be out of print. Another way is to download a copy from the internet—except all the usual suppliers have removed their copies. That usually means the lawyers have been busy threatening people. You can read the screenplay at The Internet Movie Screenplay Database. Or you can ask your own informal network; someone should have a PDF copy they're willing to send you. ]

What has been the most memorable moment in your career(s) to date?  

First time I saw my name in the credits. I had officially become a creating part of that magical world I had lived in as a child.

What are your ten favourite (favourite, not ‘best’) movies of all time?

This will be an odd list! Here goes:
The Ninth Configuration (1980)
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Hair (1979)
Double Indemnity (1944)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The Killer (1989)
The Vanishing (1988)
The Changeling (1980)
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The Big Sleep (1946)

What’s next for Daniel Martin Eckhart?

For the first time in years I'm NOT taking an assignment but will instead focus on a spec I've wanted to write for a long time. I can tell you one thing, if all goes well Jeremy Irons will play the male lead.

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2 comments:

Kathy Smart said...

One of the most eclectic movie lists you have garnered so far, Henry! Daniel Eckhart really enjoys his movies. I loved that version of Hair but I can't get any of my kids to sit through it.

Also fascinating to have inside knowledge about the Swiss guards. Everyone knows the Pope has Swiss guards but that's about all.

Thanks for the hint about procuring a Die Hard manuscript. I generally don't watch thrillers but I was mesmerised by Die Hard.

Kathy Smart said...

One of the most eclectic movie lists you have garnered so far, Henry! Daniel Eckhart really enjoys his movies. I loved that version of Hair but I can't get any of my kids to sit through it.

Also fascinating to have inside knowledge about the Swiss guards. Everyone knows the Pope has Swiss guards but that's about all.

Thanks for the hint about procuring a Die Hard manuscript. I generally don't watch thrillers but I was mesmerised by Die Hard.