• Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. My entire family, with the exception of me, all hailed from New York. I'm the anomaly. My parents thought extreme humidity and mosquitoes would build character.
• What kind of a family did you grow up with?
My parents were, and continue to be, incredibly supportive. I'm an only child so I'm sure that has something to do with it. My childhood and adolescence were both excruciatingly normal and pleasant. Fairly early on it was evident that this would be my career path and I can't recall a moment when my parents expressed the slightest moment of concern. Behind closed doors, who knows, they may have been breathing into paper bags, but to my face they couldn't have been more wonderful and supportive.
• Where did you go to school?
I got my BFA in Film at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando. At the time I attended, the school's claim to fame was that The Blair Witch Project guys came out of there. So the program was geared heavily toward independent filmmaking—a kind of Make-What-You-Want-How-You-Want philosophy, that encouraged you to learn as you go. In that sense, it was a lot of fun. At certain points we all wrote, directed, produced, edited, and (unfortunately, if you visit my IMDb page) acted in our projects.
From there, I got my Masters at the American Film Institute Conservatory (AFI). And that learning experience was on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. At AFI, you applied to a specific discipline and, if you were accepted, in that discipline you remained. I studied screenwriting there. I got lucky in the sense that UCF allowed me to explore all aspects of filmmaking so by the time I got to AFI, I was able to narrow the field down to a singular area of study.
• When did you first take an interest in storytelling?
I'd spend hours in my bedroom playing with GI Joe and wrestling action figures, making pretend movies with them. They wouldn't be wrestlers or soldiers, they were basically actors playing a role in whatever story I was making up on the fly. At the time I didn't think of it as writing, I was just playing with toys. But I'd be locked in my room for hours making up stories and acting them out with my action figures. My parents probably thought I had some kind of problem. When you're a kid, the idea of actual writing is basically just homework, so you don't think of movies or TV or plays as things which are written.
I acted in high school. Memorization was always a problem for me and I remember not being prepared for a class project that was a scene study. So the morning of the scene I rewrote it and it played well. That was probably the first moment the idea of writing clicked.
• What was your first paying job (in any field)?
I'm pretty unhirable in almost any field. I'm good at working with kids because I haven't matured past one. So all of my non-writing jobs were in the after-school care realm. I honestly loved doing those jobs. And after AFI that was what I did to support myself while writing.
As far as writing gigs go, my first paid job happened when I was at UCF. An author wanted to adapt one of his novels into a movie, but didn't want to pay a real writer. So that's how I got the job. He reached out to the dean of our film school, in the attempt to find a student who would basically adapt the book for free. The dean passed the request down to a screenwriting professor, who was a mentor of mine. He gave me the book and that was my first job. In hindsight, it was a pretty great learning experience. If you find yourself in the position where you're getting paid for a learning experience, you should consider yourself quite lucky.
• It’s been standard advice for some time now, certainly since Shaun of the Dead, that writers consider writing a mashup of two genres. Tell us your process for thinking your way into The One I Love.
Honestly, we weren't trying to merge two genres that normally don't go together.
If Charlie McDowell and I have any storytelling agenda at all, it's taking high concept ideas, movies that could conceivably be big studio endeavors, and then figure out a way to tell the intimate, character-driven version of it. It allows us to really attempt to be subversive and have the story unfold in a way that the audiences may not be expecting. The feeling of unpredictability, and the sense that anything could happen, is the currency of the types of stories we love to tell.
We obviously knew we were delving into sci-fi, but we never had any talks that I'm
aware of where we said "let's combine that with rom-com." For example, if a movie studio did The One I Love, there's probably a horror movie element that would go along nicely with the premise. We weren't interested in that. So if we remove that element, something else had to fit in its place. And the deconstruction/exploration of a troubled relationship is what emerged. So the whole rom-com element was completely organic.
As for the process of thinking our way to The One I Love, it was something new to us; and something that I think all first-time filmmakers should consider when attempting to make that first movie. And that's basically reverse engineering the script based on the resources you already have. We started off with a loose premise. Then we discussed what we wanted to say within that premise. Then from there, we immediately assessed what we had and what we could have. Budget, actors, location, etc. And from there we constructed and wrote the script to those resources. I think that most people trying to get their first movie off the ground write the script then try to get the things they need. We made sure we had the things, THEN we wrote the script.
• At what point did you decide what the theme is of The One I Love? (Can you express the theme here without spoiling anything?)
Charlie, Mark, Lizzie, and myself had a lot of discussions about relationships. Who we are when we first meet a potential mate verses who we become when we get comfortable. The idea of presenting your best self, an image that you couldn't possibly keep up. This idea of who you wish you were, maybe a version of yourself that's 20% percent better.
And as that veneer slowly goes away, as the relationship becomes complacent, you begin to resent your partner for not living up to who you thought they were when you first met them. The blame doesn't always fall squarely on your partner for misrepresenting who they are. A lot of times, we create this idealized version of who we think our partner is and then blame them when they're not that.
Exploring and deconstructing relationship dynamics is something Charlie and I find very interesting. It's this complicated arena that's mostly buried deep within our subconscious that I think is ripe for endless amounts of stories.
• What’s the difference between a ‘scriptment’ and a standard treatment?
A scriptment has all the craft and feel of a regular script but without most of the dialogue. It's basically a novella, with screenwriting slug-lines. All the dialogue I included was written in quotes within the exposition, the same way a novel does it. That being said, the final 30 minutes of the movie were entirely scripted for practical reasons that wouldn't allow for improv.
It became apparent on set that scripting out the next day's scenes would be of use, because our schedule was so tight. There were so many scenes in this movie that we didn't have the luxury of long, exploratory, attempts to find the scene with improv. So even if the dialogue wasn't used to a tee, it served as a nice pacing reference. That's to say that if the scene is scripted at the length of a page and a half, Mark and Lizzie could read it and see that the first five lines have a ton of room to play, but by a pacing standpoint they need to hit this bit of information in order to pivot into the next scene. From what I understand, it's a lot similar to how Curb Your Enthusiasm does it.
• How many times have you been asked, What Else Have You Got? since The One I Love gave you a profile? Are producers expecting all rom-coms from you from here on out?
I'm not expected to churn out rom-coms luckily. For the most part it's been a lot of meetings feeling out what types of stories I'm interested in telling. It's been great and super-freeing. Creatively, the idea of taking big ideas and figuring out an economic way to tell the story is something people are always interested in.
• Have you met Harvey Weinstein yet?
I'm a Jewish kid with a huge family based out of New York. I've met a ton of Harvey Weinsteins. You're gonna have to be more specific.
• Were you a Mad Men fan before you met Elisabeth Moss? (What’s she like in real life?)
I'm a huge Mad Men fan, so having Lizzie was a dream come true. She's so talented. And what she can do, with just a look, is staggering. I pretty much thank her once a day for doing this movie. We've become close friends and that's just an added bonus to what was already a fairytale filmmaking experience.
• You’ve had your first feature made, your first taste of stardom (Sundance, Tribeca, Carson Reeves interview, etc.). Have you been able to settle back into the routine of writing the next one?
Oh yeah. Charlie and I have spent the past year writing the next one and now we're finally finished with the script and in the beginning stages of getting that going. So fingers crossed. I'm really excited about it.
• What are three things you wish someone had told you about working as a screenwriter when you were starting out?
1. Patience. Everything about this business is S...L...O...W. Feels like it takes a lifetime to get an agent or a manager. Then you finally do. Then it takes even longer to get a job. Then you finally do. Then it takes even longer to get the next job. Then you finally do. Then it takes forever to sign the contract. Then you finally do. And you still haven't been paid yet. Basically, there's a lot of tiers to "breaking in" and we can always point to the overnight lottery winners who break in with a lot of fanfare and relative ease. But those instances are the exception, and very rarely even true. If you're gonna commit to this as your career, you have to accept that it takes time and know you're committing for the long haul.
2. Don't chase industry trends. Write what feels right. Stories and characters you can't stop thinking about. I've seen scripts that have a lot of issues get sold because the writer's voice and passion blasted through all the script's faults. If you chase industry trends, by the time you finish the script, the trends will have most likely shifted. Industry trends are bullshit. So you're just chasing bullshit. Think of it that way.
3. Just go back and re-read suggestion number 1. Then read it a few more times. Seriously.
• If you had to suggest just one screenwriting book to a newbie writer in Adelaide, which one would it be?
Not sure about which books to recommend. I'm sure there are some good ones. I'm just not too familiar with them and I wouldn't want to steer anybody the wrong way. I'd say read scripts. Tons of scripts. Dissect them. Diagnose what works about them and what might not be working. Think about how you'd write the scene if it were your script. Always be reading scripts.
• What are your ten favourite (favourite, not ‘best’) movies of all time?
This is super tough and constantly shifting. I'll name ten favorites, but these are in no particular order. These are just ten random favorites --
Psycho (1960)(The Sopranos is obviously not a movie, but there's probably no-greater story-telling influence in my life than that show. And along those lines, The Twilight Zone.)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Annie Hall (1977)
Groundhog Day (1993)
The Usual Suspects (1995
Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)
The Sopranos (1999)
• What’s next for Justin Lader?
Like I said, Charlie and I are trying to get our next one going. And while that's happening, I got hired to do a rewrite. Both projects are very exciting and a lot of fun.
Justin Lader on blending genres.