Interview: A conversation with screenwriter Johnny Sullivan

Zachary Leeman chats with Johnny Sullivan, screenwriter of Fear of the Dark, The Prophecy: Uprising, The Prophecy: Forsaken and Recoil…

Zachary Leeman: Let’s start by breaking down how you started in the business? How did you first become a paid screenwriter? Explain the hustle to me and to aspiring screenwriters that may be reading this.

John Sullivan: Growing up, I thought I wanted to be a novelist. I read voraciously. My addictions were mostly Stephen King, Dean Koontz, James Herbert and the occasional Tom Clancy actioner. I was a little too young to understand the political thrillers, but I tried. I attempted a few half-written books, and they were terrible. It wasn’t until I was 14 or so that I understood what a screenwriter did. I was an enormous movie fan. 

I never played sports, I wasn’t incredibly social and so I watched 2-3 movies a day. Even in high school, I wasn’t the guy who partied and went out every Saturday night. I usually went to the movies or rented films. So, when I figured out people wrote movies for a living, I immediately bought a couple of screenwriting books and studied the format. I cranked out a couple of horrible screenplays. I was about 16 years old when I completed my first one. I think it was about a cannibal epidemic in Manhattan. The second one was about en ex-con rescuing two blonde, beautiful twins from a terrorist organization. Obviously, they weren’t Shakespeare.  Gradually, I got better. I wrote more scripts in college, and at the same time studied the business. I learned how screenplays were sold and marketed, and subscribed to a few trade magazines like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. 

I’m 35 now, so this was the mid 90’s which was a very good time for ‘spec’ screenplays. A spec (speculative) screenplay is an original script that a writer tries to market to studios/producers (buyers). Professional writers were selling projects for millions of dollars. I followed the progress of the market pretty closely and sent my material to various producers who were looking for fresh content. The problem was that I didn’t have an agent or a manager. I was just a college kid sending out unsolicited screenplays. Chances are, nothing ever got a read.

After college, I got a job at a small production company based in Tribeca. The job was pretty easy:  answer phones, read scripts, make coffee. I had my own office, and I had a lot of time to write on the job. It was also great because it gave me further insight into the business, and the process.

I wrote a small horror film called ‘Fear of the Dark’ on the train commuting from Long Island to New York City. It was a low-budget PG-13 thriller about two brothers trapped in a haunted house during a blackout. It was a quick effort, and an easy movie to write. 

Eventually, I left my job in Tribeca and took a job as office manager in the New York branch of The Gersh Agency. Once again, this was an easy gig where I primarily delivered copies of industry trades to the agents, fixed light bulbs, fixed copiers, and answered phones. Not only did I have a lot of downtime, I had access to professional screenplays and contacts. On a whim, I sent ‘Fear of the Dark’ out to a number of small production companies who might like that kind of movie.

A small production company actually contacted me and picked it up! They paid me $5,000 for the full rights and a year later the movie was in production. It was my first produced credit, and my first paycheck for writing. Five grand isn’t really a lot of money, so I couldn’t quit my job just yet, but it did enable me to afford a couple of months rent in New York. It also gave me a lot of confidence, so I continued to churn out spec screenplays. My next one was a big-budget action-thriller called ‘Rapid’. It was fairly similar to ‘Speed’ and ‘Die Hard.’ Luckily, studios were looking for the next ‘Speed’ or ‘Die Hard’ and I sent the finished script out to a few managers. I learned that sending specs to production companies didn’t always work out, so I set my sights on gaining representation instead. The strategy paid off, and I found myself with a fresh manager – based in LA – who was hungry for material. He had a deal with Original Films and showed them my script. They loved it, and – in turn – brought it to Sony Pictures where it was purchased for a mid-six figure sum. Now, I could quit my job. I was advised to move to Los Angeles immediately, but I resisted since I was young and had a life in New York City. 

Sony flew me out first class and set me up in a hotel on Sunset where I could develop the script with the executives and receive notes. They also gave me a bar tab at the hotel restaurant. Not sure what they were thinking with that decision. I was 22 years old, and I definitely took advantage.

It was the beginning of my career. Sadly, ‘Rapid’ got mired in development hell and never got made – which is pretty common in this industry, but I had enough money to write full-time and create more chances.     

ZL: As a screenwriter, do you feel much relationship to the final product? Films are known for changing, changing, changing. Have you ever had a film end up the same on screen as on the page or have you ever been involved through the whole filmmaking and rewriting process?

JS: You can’t think that the movie you write is going to be the one you see on the screen. That rarely happens. You have to separate yourself from the original script.  The original movie is always on your desktop, and no studio can take that away. What they can do is hire other writers to rewrite you. The director will have notes. The actors will have notes. The producers will have notes. In many cases, the script will mutate to such a degree that you might not even have a ‘Screenplay By’ credit anymore. Usually, in the contract, a writer will have 1 or 2 contractual rewrites. That means that the studio HAS to have the original writer rewrite the piece. But once those ‘steps’ are up, they can bring in whoever they want to remodel the house. When that happens, you just have to smile, cash the paycheck and move onto the next project. I will say that ‘Fear of the Dark’ and ‘Recoil’ are very close to my original vision. ‘Recoil’ in fact is almost word-for-word my script. Any changes that were made were minor, and largely budgetary. As far as input, I don’t have much. Occasionally a producer will be nice and ask who I think should be in the movie, or invite me to set…but it’s usually just them being polite. ‘Recoil’ and ‘Fear of the Dark’ are also smaller films. There’s not a lot of leeway in the budget to hire other writers, generally what they buy is what they get. On some bigger studio specs I’ve set up, I’ve been heavily rewritten by multiple, expensive writers. It’s the nature of the beast, and I don’t take it personal. 

ZL: Let’s talk specifically about your work now that you’ve touched on some of it. How did you get involved with the Prophecy films and what was that like because that’s a bit of a cult franchise in some circles?

The Prophecy: Uprising’ and ‘The Prophecy: Forsaken’ were fun to work on. I had just sold ‘Rapid’ and I was kind of a ‘name’ at the time, meaning that I was a fresh writer and I had been proven on a major sale. I took a ton of meetings in LA for other projects, but since I didn’t live in LA, I couldn’t stick around. That may have hurt me in booking a follow-up high profile gig. When I returned to NYC, Dimension Films reached out to me and wanted to know if I would meet on some material they had. It was convenient for me, since they had offices in the city. I went in and met with a few of the execs over there (it did help that my college buddy was one of them). They showed me a few properties that Dimension owned at the time. ‘Total Recall’, ‘Rambo’, ‘Mimic’, and ‘The Prophecy’ were the main titles. Of course, I wanted all of them. I pitched my takes (my vision of how the sequels would play out) and they called me up a few days later and offered me ‘The Prophecy’ chapters. I actually wasn’t too familiar with the franchise, so they sent over the DVDs and I watched them over the weekend. Funnily enough, I had two unsold specs that were kind of similar in tone, so I sent them over to Dimension saying: ‘We can turn these into Prophecy sequels’. That’s what happened. Two unrelated screenplays became ‘The Prophecy’ 4 & 5. It was still a lot of work to retrofit the material into the storyline, but it was a good experience. I wound up with ‘Story By’ credits on those projects because the director rewrote my drafts pretty extensively. I still get residuals for those films, and people seem to like them. I really wish I got ‘Rambo’, but I doubt it would have gotten made as Stallone bought the rights back a few years later. ‘Total Recall’ would have been interesting because it would have been a prequel, not a remake. ‘Rambo IV’ would have taken place in South Central/Los Angeles. ‘Mimic 3’ would have been similar to ‘Aliens’ with cockroaches.

ZL: The film I think most know you for (me included) is Recoil starring Steve Austin and Danny Trejo. Did you know you were writing that for those giants and how involved were you with everything?

JS: ‘Recoil’ started off as my attempt to write a modern-day western. I really loved movies like ‘Shane’ and ‘High Plains Drifter.’ I always dug that ‘lone stranger’ storyline. I held onto the script for a while, but since it wasn’t some super high-concept blockbuster, my representatives were kinda ‘eh’ about it. Eventually, we got Randy Couture to star and crafted some of it toward him. It would have been his first feature film, since he hadn’t done ‘The Expendables’ yet. Unfortunately, Randy fell through and it was back to the drawing board. About a year later – ironically – Sylvester Stallone wanted to do it. He had a full dance card at the time though, and the movie wouldn’t have gotten made for a decade. We waited around, but since I really wanted to get the movie produced and Stallone would have rewritten the hell out of me – I decided to move on. 

Another year goes by, and my manager and I run into Steve Austin’s people at a party in the hills (I had moved to Los Angeles at this point). We pitched them the script, and they read it the next day and attached Steve. The movie was made a few months later. Simple. They shot my script and I was really happy the way it turned out. 

I didn’t have much involvement, I wasn’t really needed since the movie is almost an exact representation of my script.

Danny Trejo was cast after Steve. He was definitely a choice of mine, and we were lucky to get him.

ZL: Tell me about your production company Blackout Films. What have you done with it, what are your plans with it and what do you want people to know about it?

JS: Blackout Films is still in its infancy. First and foremost, I’m a writer. I need to write to make a living since producing really doesn’t pay off until the film actually exists. I’ve been slowly edging into producing, and helping other writers hone their craft and develop ideas. I have a haunted house movie I’m developing right now with director Dave Parker, in addition to a comic book called ‘The Reaper’ with Arcana Studios/Mammo Media. I do have one producer credit on a finished film titled ‘Saturday.’ My friend and I wrote and shot it for about $10,000 in New York City. We have yet to find distribution, and we’re not crossing our fingers. But that was a great experience, and it was a ton of fun. It was truly one of those Roger Corman-esque productions where we had free access to three different bars in downtown Manhattan, so we wrote a script that took place in three bars in downtown Manhattan. It was also an excuse to hang out in bars, and call it ‘work’. But, ideally I’d like to have a model like Blumhouse: low-budget high concept genre pieces that turn a profit. 

ZL: I’m not sure if it’s still the case, but you wrote under contract for some time under Dimension Films. Is that true and do you work under contract currently?

JS: I haven’t done anything for Dimension in a while (my IMDB bio is woefully out of date). I always talk to them and submit material though. It’s a different animal and regime over there now. They’re an iconic company run by some very smart people, but they really don’t have a huge output these days. I’d love to see them do some more action movies.  I’m a closet ‘Reindeer Games’ fan. 

I did some work on ‘Halloween 9’, as did every other genre writer in town. They eventually scrapped that project and rebooted it with Rob Zombie’s remake. 

ZL: I’ve seen on your twitter page that you’ve sold a great many scripts. In context, few have been produced. Is this hard to deal with as a writer-the fact that very little of your work makes it to that filming process? Is it frustrating or just part of the game?

JS: Once again, ‘nature of the beast’. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that most things I write won’t get made. Studios buy a lot of specs (relatively – not as much as they used to, although this past year saw an uptick in sales), so they can’t make all of them. It’s very easy for a project to lose traction. A star can drop out, a director can bail and a bad rewrite can kill the script. I can say that with a few of my studio sales, bringing in a second writer effectively corpse-d the project because they turned in a rewrite that was…lesser. I make a living writing, and that comforts me at night. If one of my movies gets produced – that’s amazing. I don’t get rich off this, and I certainly can’t retire (I’m thinking around 90 I’ll do that), but any success in this business is success. 

Before I started this interview I was working on a script filled with monsters, and special effects, and silly comedy and I thought: ‘Someone is paying me to do this’. 

Cops, firefighters, soldiers, teachers, etc. dedicate their lives and their souls to the betterment of society…while I sit in warm-up pants and write Steve Austin punch-fests while main-lining Gatorade. 

This is a silly job. 

I’m never going to complain that a project doesn’t go the distance. Bitterness is the disease of the writer. It creeps in, and can ruin a career.  

ZL: What’s the appeal of being a screenwriter to you?

JS: It’s literally the only thing I’m remotely good at. I’ve been thinking of taking up guitar so I can have just one other talent! Seriously, I love telling stories and watching people enjoy those stories. Just like watching a movie is an escape, writing a movie is as well. It’s a lonely job sometimes, it’s a frustrating job sometimes and it’s barely a job sometimes…but when it’s fun, it’s really fun. I can’t act, I can’t direct, but there’s a huge thrill in knowing that I may have crafted a story that a studio might hire Hugh Jackman to star, and hire Ridley Scott to direct and throw millions of dollars into. And I did it on 105 pieces of paper to form its skeleton. That’s pretty cool.
ZL: As cliché as the question is, what advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters? Maybe a piece of advice you don’t hear given a lot…

JS: I always tell aspiring screenwriters the same few things. 1 – Get a job in the industry. Either as an assistant, or an intern, or a mail guy, or a light-bulb changer, or a plumber at CAA. The experience and connections are worth it and you learn a lot. 2 – Read professional scripts. These days, it’s not hard to get your hands on sold spec scripts. Read them as often as possible. It’s like exercising. 3 – Educate yourself in the business. As creative as writing can be, it’s also a business. Think like a producer. Think like an agent. Read as many industry trades as possible and know what the market can bear. I have writer/director friends who yell at me all the time; ‘Johnny, stop thinking like a producer!’ But – the reality is – you have to think like a producer. 4 – Don’t write for the market, write for the market of the future. Zombies are hot right now? Don’t write a zombie movie. Kidnapping thrillers are hot right now? Don’t write a kidnapping movie. ‘Hot’ means the market is flooded, and your spec will get lost in the shuffle. Find the next thing.  Whatever that may be (Mummy movies…shhh…don’t tell anyone). 

ZL: Finally, what do you have on the horizon? Anything close to being made that you’re excited about?

JS: I have a bunch of cool stuff looming. I just sold an action-thriller called ‘Black Friday’ that is sort of a youthful ‘Die Hard’ throwback. That one’s being produced by Mammo Media and Zero Gravity, and hopefully it’ll go before the cameras next year. I’m working on a supernatural kid film called ‘Boogey Men’ for Nickelodeon which has been a blast. I have a haunted house thriller called ‘Unwelcome’ mentioned above, which I’m hoping makes ‘The Conjuring’ look like ‘Toy Story’. Dave Parker (‘The Hills Run Red’) is directing. I’m doing another action-thriller called ‘Security’ for Level One Entertainment. I think fans of ‘Recoil’ will really like it. We’re looking for a director now, but it’s possible Kurt Angle might play the lead. I’m also developing an original project for Benderspink.

Many thanks to Johnny Sullivan for taking the time for this interview.

Zachary Leeman – Follow him on Twitter.

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